The Illinois Supreme Court is reviewing arguments over whether a McDonough County man should get a third trial in the death of a young girl.
Daniel Belknap is accused of killing Silven Yocum in 2006. Yocum was the five-year old daughter of Belknap’s then-girlfriend, Erin Yocum.
Belknap has twice been convicted of First Degree Murder, but both times, the Third District Appellate Court threw out the conviction because the trial court failed to strictly comply with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 431 (b).
Appellate justices said even though the four principles of the rule were explained to jurors, the court failed to verify whether jurors understood them.
Rule 431 (b) states:
- Defendants are presumed innocent
- The state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt
- Defendants are not required to offer evidence on their own behalf
- If a defendant chooses not to testify, jurors cannot hold that against him/her
John Schleppenbach, an assistant attorney general for the state, told the Illinois Supreme Court the evidence clearly showed Belknap is guilty, adding that jurors understood their duty.
“Never did the jury say, ‘I don’t understand that. Could you repeat that? Give me a moment.’ Anything of that kind,” Schleppenbach said.
“In fact, all of the jurors accepted the rule 431 principles. They just were not separately asked whether they understood them.”
Andy Boyd of the Illinois State Appellate Defender’s office argued on behalf of Belknap, saying it’s important for the court to err on the side of fairness so as to avoid convicting an innocent person.
“And what the state seems to be asking for here, your honors, is that we somehow flip this around so that when there’s error in a close case we choose to err on the side of the prosecution so as to perhaps run the risk of convicting more innocent people,” said Boyd.
He claimed the state’s evidence was weak and relied on jailhouse “snitches” who stood to be rewarded for their testimony.
The arguments can be heard on the Illinois Courts website.
The case was argued before the Supreme Court on September 10, eight years to the day that Silven Yocum was found in her bed suffering from seizures. She never regained consciousness and died September 16, 2006 at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
An autopsy found Yocum suffered blunt force trauma to the head. Her death was ruled a homicide.
Prosecutors contend Belknap killed the girl after she threatened to tell authorities he was using meth.
Belknap was sentenced to 30 years in prison after the first trial in 2008. He was sentenced to serve 24 years after his second trial in 2011.
It's not known when the Illinois Supreme Court will issue a ruling.