Cause-and-prejudice test requirement met if defendant adequately pleads it (People v. Smith, 2014 IL 115946)

People v. Smith, 2014 IL 115946 (December 4, 2014) is an Illinois Supreme Court case concerning the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s petition for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition under 725 ILCS 5/122-1(f). Smith was found guilty of murder and aggravated battery of a firearm following a jury trial and was sentenced to 28 years DOC. Smith’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. Smith then filed a pro se post-conviction petition, arguing that he received ineffective assistance of counsel where his defense lawyer failed to investigate the defendant’s claim that he suffered from a mental disability, which he argued rendered his sentence unconstitutional. The petition advanced to the second stage and counsel was appointed to represent him. The State filed a motion to dismiss Smith’s petition, which was granted. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the petition on direct appeal.

Smith then filed a motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, along with a successive petition, claiming that 1) appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise on direct appeal an issue regarding the prosecutor’s comments during opening statements 2) and post-conviction counsel was ineffective for failing to amend his post-conviction petition to include a claim of ineffective appellate counsel. Smith contended that he was impeded from raising those claims in his initial petition due to his low IQ. He attached supporting documentation from the Social Security Administration stating that Smith was disabled due to mental retardation. The trial court denied the petition for leave to file successive post-conviction petition under 725 ILCS 5/122-1(f) because the defendant failed to meet the “cause-and-prejudice” test under that section. The defendant appealed, and the appellate court affirmed. The defendant petitioned for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, which was granted. The issue before the court was the interpretation of 122-1(f).

Section 725 ILCS 5/122-1(f) sets forth the requirements for filing a successive post-conviction petition: “(f) Only one petition may be filed by a petitioner under this Article without leave of the court. Leave of court may be granted only if a petitioner demonstrates cause for his or her failure to bring the claim in his or her initial post-conviction proceedings and prejudice results from that failure. For purposes of this subsection (f): (1) a prisoner shows cause by identifying an objective factor that impeded his or her ability to raise a specific claim during his or her initial post-conviction proceedings; and (2) a prisoner shows prejudice by demonstrating that the claim not raised during his or her initial post-conviction proceedings so infected the trial that the resulting conviction or sentence violated due process.”

Smith argued on appeal that “section 122-1(f) should be interpreted “such that the determination of whether to grant leave to file a successive petition occurs in conjunction with the first-stage proceedings, and that leave should be granted where the pleadings make an arguable showing of cause and prejudice.” (Emphasis added). ¶25. The issue that Smith raised here is the same issue that the Illinois Supreme Court grappled with, but did not decide, in People v. Evans, 2013 IL 113471: “is cause and prejudice evaluated prior to the first stage of postconviction proceedings, or in conjunction with the first stage of postconviction proceedings? Does a successive postconviction petitioner ‘demonstrate’ cause and prejudice by adequately pleading it, or by actually proving it? And if by actually proving it, what provision is there for the presentation of evidence? Is cause and prejudice a one-sided question, or may the State contest a cause and prejudice claim?” Id. The Evans Court called on the legislature to clarify this question, but, to date, the legislature has failed to do so, which has resulted in confusion and conflict among the appellate courts.

In construing 122-1(f), the Court noted that “Section 122-1(f) does not provide for an evidentiary hearing on the cause-and-prejudice issues and, therefore, it is clear that the legislature intended that the cause-and-prejudice determination be made on the pleadings prior to the first stage of postconviction proceedings.” ¶33. The Court held that “a defendant’s pro se motion for leave to file a successive postconviction petition will meet the section 122-1(f) cause and prejudice requirement if the motion adequately alleges facts demonstrating cause and prejudice.” (Emphasis added). ¶34. “Consistent with our holdings in Pitsonbarger, Tidwell, and Edwards, we conclude that leave of court to file a successive postconviction petition should be denied when it is clear, from a review of the successive petition and the documentation submitted by the petitioner, that the claims alleged by the petitioner fail as a matter of law or where the successive petition with supporting documentation is insufficient to justify further proceedings.” ¶35.

Applying this holding to the facts here, the Court held that Smith failed to meet the cause-and-prejudice test because he failed to show prejudice under the second prong of the test where the underlying legal claim that he wished to assert in the successive petition—the prosecutor’s improper opening remarks—was legally meritless, even if the facts he offered in support of his reason for bringing this claim in a successive petition were considered to be enough to satisfy the cause-and-prejudice requirement.

It’s a little puzzling that the Supreme Court used this case—with such a weak underlying claim—to resolve this issue, but it appears that Smith nonetheless does a nice job of resolving this confusing procedural issue that the legislature failed to fix.

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