Crime & Courts

Appellate court tosses McHenry County sex conviction; former Big Brother can't be retried

Leonard W. Puccini
Leonard W. Puccini

WOODSTOCK — In a rare decision, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned a McHenry County sex abuse case, and said that because the evidence leading to a conviction was insufficient, the case can’t be retried.

Leonard W. Puccini, 54, formerly of Bull Valley, was convicted in May 2013, and accused of spanking the naked posterior of a young boy he once mentored through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in McHenry County. He spanked the 12-year-old boy, prosecutors said, for the purpose of sexual gratification.

After a bench trial, McHenry County Judge Michael Feetterer agreed, and later sentenced Puccini to five years in prison.

At the trial, two witnesses testified Puccini also had sexual encounters with them when they were young boys. Puccini never was charged with any incidents relative to their testimony. He was not related to, but otherwise had known the alleged victims, and he did not meet them through the youth mentor program.

Feetterer allowed their testimony at trial, but the appellate court said he shouldn’t have. The alleged acts were too dissimilar and overly prejudicial.

“In fact, [the] defendant’s conviction rests entirely on other-crimes evidence,” the opinion read.

The opinion, written by Appellate Judge Ann Jorgensen continued: “There is great risk here that [the] defendant was convicted based on the uncharged, unproved and remote allegations, rather than the evidence supporting the charged crime.”

The appellate court further found, that without their testimony, there lacked proof beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning that under the double jeopardy clause, Puccini can’t be retried.

Trial courts, Jorgensen wrote, are typically cautious when admitting a defendant’s other criminal acts.

“Generally, the risk associated with the admission of other-crimes evidence is that it might prove ‘too much,’ rendering the fact finder inclined to convict the defendant simply because it believes that he or she is a bad person deserving of punishment.”

Puccini had been serving time at Graham Correctional Center. He was eligible for parole in April 2016, but could be released soon, his attorney said. His attorney said they would seek his release this week.

Local prosecutors can appeal the high court’s decision, or ask the case to be taken up by the Supreme Court, though there’s no guarantee the high court will take it. What local prosecutors ultimately decide to do could effect how soon or whether Puccini walks.

When reached Monday, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs wouldn’t comment on his office’s next move.

“The only statement I’m going to make is that we respect the opinion of the appellate court,” said Combs, who also is Criminal Division Chief.

Puccini hired high-profile appellate attorney Kathleen Zellner, who also is handling Mario Casciaro’s appeal for his murder conviction in the death of missing Johnsburg teen Brian Carrick.

Zellner called Puccini’s prosecution an “overreach.”

“It’s unusual to get an outright reversal,” Zellner said. “[The appellate court] usually sends the case back for a new trial. It’s very unusual, and it means the evidence was weak or nonexistent.”

The high court heard oral arguments just a week before rendering its decision Sept. 5.

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