The Fifth District Appellate court has overturned a decision out of the Madison County Circuit Court in a suit involving a fatal collision with a pedestrian, arguing that the circuit court relied on information that had not been part of the trial.
Justice David Overstreet delivered the Rule 23 decision on Jan. 16 with justices Melissa Chapman and Judy Cates concurring.
The appellate court found that the verdict out of former Madison County Associate Judge Luther Simmons' courtroom was "tainted by an appearance of impropriety." The case was remanded for a new trial.
According to the complaint, defendant Scott Peery hit and killed pedestrian Laura Helmkamp with his pickup truck on Sept. 25, 2013 in Collinsville. In a January 2016 bench trial, Peery was found guilty of failing to reduce his speed to avoid a collision. He was given six months probation and a $1,000 fine.
Peery filed an appeal, alleging that during the bench trial “when summarizing the facts of the case, the trial court referenced testimony that had not been presented."
One of the statements in question was Peery’s alleged statement that as he turned onto the road he heard two thumps.
“The defendant correctly observes that this letter’s ‘thumps’ terminology’ is found nowhere in the record other than in the letter and the trial court’s March 2016 judgment order. Moreover, the court’s order erroneously indicates that the defendant testified that he ‘heard two (2) ‘thumps,’” Overstreet wrote.
In defence of Peery’s appeal for a new trial, he gave the court “copies of victim impact statements written by Helmkamp’s sisters nearly two years prior to the date of the bench trial. The statements were apparently submitted to the Madison County state’s attorney’s victim advocate for the trial court’s consideration,” the decision states.
Peery claims Luther relied on he letters when making a decision.
“The defendant argues that although “it is not clear if the trial judge read the letter from the deceased’s sister,” the court’s inexplicable use of the word “thumps” gives rise to an appearance of impropriety that warrants a new trial before a new judge. We agree,” Overstreet concluded.
Overstreet held that the evidence presented supports the claim that Luther's decision was influenced by non-trial material.
“We cannot dismiss as mere coincidence that the phrase ‘two thumps’ appears nowhere in the record other than in the trial court’s judgment order and the aforementioned victim impact statement. The record therefore supports the defendant’s suggestion that the court’s judgment may have been improperly influenced by the statement,” Overstreet wrote.
However, the state argues that whatever Peery heard has no bearing on his guilt or innocence and the ruling should stand.
The appellate court Justices concluded that the court needs to appear impartial.
“Whether the defendant was in fact prejudiced by the trial court’s exposure to the victim impact statements is therefore irrelevant; it is the appearance that the statements might have influenced the court’s judgment that warrants a new trial before a different judge,” Overstreet wrote.