Judge takes hearing under advisement

Cathy Decker/Staff reporter

A move to overturn the conviction and/or sentence of Ryan Spencer Ross Bell, was heard in Mercer County Court Monday, Aug. 31, 2009, at a post conviction evidentiary hearing. Judge James G. Conway presided over the hearing, regarding a petition submitted on behalf of Ryan Spencer Ross Bell, who is currently serving a 20-year sentence for criminal sexual assault.

Bell originally negotiated a plea agreement and was sentenced to 20 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections in October 2006. Two attempts have already been made by Bell's to appeal and/or overturn the sentence, to no avail. The evidentiary hearing was to decide whether Ryan Bell had received adequate counsel during his case before the 14th Judicial Court in October 2006.

Representing Bell at the nearly five-hour hearing on Monday were attorneys Steve Hanna and John McAdam, with McAdam taking the lead role during questioning.

The burden of proof was on the defense to prove the state had withheld evidence that could have been used by the defense either in defending Bell or at the sentencing hearing.

Testifying first for the defense was attorney Donovan Robinson, who served as Bell's original lawyer.

Robinson was asked about his knowledge of a medical report on the victim. He testified he became aware of the fact that a doctor had seen the 15-year-old victim, after the fact.

That fact was not noted in investigating Sgt. Nick Seefeld's report of his interview with the victim. "I was aware that she took a pregnancy test," said Robinson.

Attorney McAdam focused his questioning on a number of audio and or videotapes of interviews of the victim and a number of other juveniles who were interviewed in connection with the case of an underage drinking party that ended up in sexual assault of a minor. Transcripts of the interviews, as well as medical information on the victim were not disclosed to the defense, according to arguments. The defense argued that Donovan Robinson did request the tapes, but never received them.

Instead, the defense was given reports of Aledo Police officer Nick Seefeld, who interviewed all but one of seven individuals involved in the case.

Robinson explained the process he went through when representing a client in a sex trial that includes looking at objective evidence, medical evidence, eye witness testimony. Robinson's opinion was that "eyeball testimony is the strongest."

On cross examination State's attorney Greg McHugh asked Robinson to explain the exposure his client faced. With five Class 1 felony counts of sexual assault, Bell faced from four to 15 years in the Department of Corrections for each count. Robinson explained the amount of time, if his client was found guilty in a trial, was extendable, due to Bell's previous conviction of residential burglary. He faced up to double the amount of time, if convicted of all five charges, which would be served consecutively.

Donovan also talked about two appeals filed on behalf of Bell, which both failed.

McHugh asked Robinson to take him through the process he uses to represent a client. Robinson explained how he made a chart that listed out the evidence and how it came together; he looked at the background of the witnesses, the 15-year-old victim, and the five to six eyewitnesses and analyzed each of their possible testimony. "There was a substantial amount of evidence against my client," said Robinson. He said he thought there was a substantial possibility of a guilty verdict. "If he was found guilty on one count, I felt he could be found guilty on all counts," said Robinson "I felt the exposure he would have at sentencing would be very, very serious."

On several questions, Robinson objected to the state's questions, saying he was still bound by privilege. "Ryan Bell has not done anything to waive the privilege that he or I might have had," he said.

Three points were being questioned during the evidentiary hearing - was there evidence that was withheld from the defense; was it suppressed and would it have made a difference in sentencing.

The state argued that it believed that privilege was waived between Bell and Robinson. "Is there some reason you needed that videotape to come to a conclusion?" asked State's Attorney Greg McHugh.

"Never having seen it, I don't know," said Robinson.

McAdam redirected questions to Robinson specifically making the point that he had asked for and never received copies of video and audio reports from witnesses. "Certainly you asked for the medical exam and you didn't receive it?" said MdAdam.

"Correct," said Robinson.

McAdam used a whiteboard to place initials of the various potential witnesses, of which three of the seven were tried in juvenile court for class 1 sexual assault charges. Some conflicting stories were discussed.

"I did not realize we were going to retry the case," said Robertson. He had to refresh his memory several times, by reading police reports or transcripts during his testimony, saying he did not have recollection of statements made by various kids by their initials.

Judge Conway more than once said, "I did indicate earlier we weren't going to try this case."

One question was whether some of the statements made by witnesses might be helpful to the defense, such as the victim not remembering being assaulted by more than two individuals, with Bell not being one.

"That would not be something I would be parading out in the case," said Robinson, of the witness's testimony.

McHugh then came back for his redirect. He established that Mr. Bell got the victim drunk, that there were various statements by more than one witness of the victim being sexually penetrated with other objects.

Other witnesses called by the defense included Aledo Police Chief J. Michael Sponsler, Aledo Sgt. Nick Seefeld, chief investigator, and Mercer County Sheriff investigator Jeff Dale.

Testimony revealed that on some of the reports that were written up, there was no mention that a video and/or audiotape had been made of the interview.

The training of the officers was questioned, including training on report writing.

During testimony of Seefeld, the defense questioned Seefeld about whether he knew the juveniles and or their parents. Seefeld said he had known all of the parents for more than 20 years.

His written report on the victim's forensic interview did not mention the demeanor of the victim, "whether or not she was crying, or whether she was emotional at all."

"(The victim) had a medical exam. That didn't make your report, did it?"

McAdam asked Seefeld.

Seefeld did not recall and the court allowed time for Seefeld to review his report.

"No, it does not," said Seefeld. "She indicated everything was ok."

Seefeld said the medical exam was done in Cambridge and a report was written by Ryan Tome, a special agent.

McAdam asked, "Why didn't you follow up?"

"I didn't feel there was a need," Seefeld said.

Seefeld was questioned about some of the other interviews by the state, including that the victim was interviewed 10 days after the assault.

"Was that common in sexual assault cases?" asked McHugh.

"That she was drugged, that she had to be carried into the party?"

The defense objected saying the questions were hearsay. "He's trying the case through hearsay," said McAdam.

Judge Conway overruled the objection. "It's a guilty plea case," he said.

He went on to instruct both attorneys to stick with the purpose of the hearing, which was the duty to disclose (evidence), whether or not the evidence was material and would there be a finding that was prejudicial to the defendant.

The states attorney then proceeded through all the potential witnesses that were interviewed by Seefeld, and whether his reports said anything about audio and videotaping.

After a lunch break, the hearing resumed with the state calling two witnesses - Nick Seefeld and Jeff Dale.

State's attorney McHugh asked Seefeld why Jeff Dale was called in to do the interview of one of the witnesses.

Seefeld said, "I don't recall why."

McHugh asked about the underage drinking party held at Ryan's residence. There were seven sets of initials of witnesses and victim that were referenced throughout the testimony.

Seefeld said he wrote reports on all those he interviewed and provided them to the state's attorney office. McHugh went into depth comparing the report to what was included on the tapes, where they were stored and that notice had been given to the defendant on these tapes.

It was also established that there was no notice to the defense about Special Agent Tome's report that was about the victim's medical report. Nor was there mention of one other witness or an adult who purchased alcohol for the party.

Bell is currently serving time at the Logan Correctional Center, although he was brought up to Mercer County Jail for the purpose of this hearing and is staying in Mercer County Jail until Judge Conway renders his decision.

During testimony by Mercer County sheriff's department investigator Jeff Dale, he revealed he was asked to do one of the interviews. He also said he was the owner of the house where the party took place.

The state and defense each made a summary of their case to the court to end the hearing.

Defense attorney McAdam said that three things needed to be established, the there was information that would either point to the guilt or soften the evidence against the defendant; that this information was either purposely or inadvertently excluded or suppressed from the defense and that the defense was prejudiced by the exclusion of the information.

On Oct. 2, 2006, the defense requested written and recorded statements of any physical or mental exams but he never received these things.

Four items including audio videotapes of the victim, and three others, who would have provided testimony, had the case gone to trial, were not given to the defense. McAdam called it "inadvertent suppression of four vital pieces."

McHugh argued that this was not a trial; the plea agreement was not subject to cross-examination, the information from the videotapes was not material to the case. "There has been no evidence to show the strength of their case," said McHugh.

"You're asking for a new trial and if that's denied, a new sentencing hearing," Judge Conway said.

After the summaries, Conway said he would take the case under advisement, reserving judgment until after considering all the testimony.