Defendant who was absent at trial could not later argue that counsel failed to consult with him about trial strategy (People v. Montes, 2014 IL App (2d) 140485)

People v. Montes, 2014 IL App (2d) 140485 (February 6, 2015) Kane Co. Affirmed. Defendant Augustine Montes was convicted of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery following a jury trial in absentia. He received concurrent sentences of 26 years on the attempted murder charge and 10 years on the aggravated battery charge. His convictions and sentences were affirmed on direct appeal. Montes then filed a post-conviction petition alleging actual innocence based on a theory of entrapment and ineffective assistance of counsel.

Montes’ post-conviction petition alleged that he obtained evidence after trial that would have supported an entrapment defense in the form of an affidavit from a man who indicated that, contrary to his trial testimony, another man “‘induced and incited” the incident by possessing a firearm and putting everyone in a position to commit a crime.” ¶ 12. An additional affidavit from defendant’s trial attorney was attached to the petition indicating that it was defense counsel’s understanding that the affiant who would testify to these events was unavailable to be interviewed or called as a witness because he had several pending criminal cases.

Montes also argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to discuss with him tendering a jury instruction on the lesser-included offense of reckless discharge of a firearm. An affidavit from trial counsel was attached indicating that trial counsel did not discuss this jury instruction with defendant and that defendant was not advised of the possibility of asking for it. Montes also argued that trial counsel was ineffective for not seeking a plea deal from the State.

The trial court summarily dismissed the defendant’s petition, finding that the affidavit from the witness was not “newly discovered evidence,” nor was it non-cumulative or so conclusive that it was likely to change the result on retrial. The court also found that defendant’s ineffective assistance claim was forfeited by failing to raise it on direct appeal and that the claim was factually insufficient because defendant did not attach an affidavit asserting that he would have demanded the submission of the lesser-included-offense instruction. ¶ 16. Montes appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the petition, holding that defendant forfeited his entrapment defense because he failed to raise it at trial, he never complained that counsel failed to raise that defense, he did not raise the defense on direct appeal, and he did not complain of ineffective assistance of counsel on appeal for his appellate lawyer’s failure to raise it there. Accordingly, this claim was forfeited. ¶ 19, citing People v. Davis, 2014 IL 115595, ¶ 13 (in a postconviction setting, issues that were raised and decided on direct appeal are barred by res judicata, while issues that could have been raised on direct appeal, but were not, are forfeited).

On the issue of whether the information from the witness was considered “newly discovered,” the court explained that “‘Usually, to qualify as new evidence, it is the facts comprising that evidence which must be new and undiscovered as of trial, in spite of the exercise of due diligence. Generally, evidence is not ‘newly discovered’ when it presents facts already known to the defendant at or prior to trial, though the source of those facts may have been unknown, unavailable, or uncooperative.” (Emphases added.) ¶24, quoting People v. Barnslater, 373 Ill. App. 3d 512, 523 (2007). The affidavit from the witness was therefore not “newly discovered” because the defendant knew of the existence of these facts prior to trial, but did not raise them at trial. The court acknowledged that defendant may counter that even if he knew these facts, the witness who would testify to them was unavailable because he would be unwilling to testify. However, the court noted, defendant could have testified to these facts himself at trial, but he chose not to even be present at the trial.

Related to that is defendant’s second claim that defense counsel failed “to discuss with defendant whether to submit to the jury a lesser-included-offense instruction, but defendant was not present at trial for counsel to do so. Counsel could not submit a lesser-included-offense instruction without the opportunity to discuss it with defendant and without defendant’s consent. Id. at 230. Thus, by absenting himself from trial, defendant precluded counsel from fulfilling the obligation to discuss with him the availability of a lesser-included-offense instruction.” Dismissal of the petition was therefore affirmed.

The somewhat unique aspect of this case is that the defendant was tried for this serious charge in abensentia. That severely impacted his ability to argue that certain evidence that he knew existed should have been presented and to argue that defense counsel failed to consult with him about tendering a lesser-included instruction. If the defendant had been present for his trial, he could have asked his attorney to go into certain lines of questioning, and the defense attorney would have then had an obligation to discuss with him the possibility of tendering a lesser-included instruction. The defendant just being present could have positively impacted the result of the trial.

Defendants who hire private post-conviction counsel are not entitled to reasonable assistance? (People v. Cotto, 2015 IL App (1st) 123489)

People v. Cotto, 2015 IL App (1st) 123489 (February 11, 2015) Cook Co., 3d Div. Affirmed. Defendant Jesus Cotto was convicted of armed robbery following a bench trial in 2008. He was sentenced to natural life imprisonment under Illinois’ habitual criminal sentencing scheme. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal in June of 2009. Cotto then filed a post-conviction petition through retained counsel on September 28, 2011. Cotto asserted various claims of ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel in his petition.

The Court docketed the defendant’s petition on November 28, 2011. On March 30, 2012, the State filed a motion to dismiss the defendant’s petition, arguing that “the petition was filed more than six months after the appellate decision was issued and that defendant had failed to present facts to suggest that the untimely filing was not due to his culpable negligence.” ¶ 5. “On August 17, 2012, defense counsel filed a response to the State’s motion in which he asserted that the petition was timely filed because trial counsel failed to inform defendant about the June 3, 2009 appellate decision and that the attached envelope, postmarked September 4, 2009, proved that the decision was sent to defendant’s mother, rather than him, and that it was mailed more than 30 days after the decision was issued. Counsel maintained that defendant was incarcerated at the time of his appeal and that the delay in filing the petition was not due to any negligence on defendant’s part, but was the result of the ineffectiveness of trial counsel, who failed to timely communicate with him about his appeal.” ¶ 6.

A hearing was held on the State’s motion to dismiss, where both the parties and the Court focused on the merits, or lack thereof, of the substantive claims raised in the defendant’s petition, without defense counsel addressing the timeliness issue. The court indicated that it had reviewed the defendant’s claims and that they were unsupported by the record or the law. The Court granted the State’s motion to dismiss while seemingly failing to address the timeliness issue, either. Cotto appealed.

The defendant abandoned his substantive claims on appeal, thereby forfeiting their appellate review. “Instead, defendant solely claims that his retained postconviction counsel failed to provide him reasonable assistance with his petition because he failed to contest the State’s assertion that the untimely filing of his petition was due to his culpable negligence.” ¶ 9. The State responded that “the Act does not require reasonable assistance of privately retained counsel, and thus defendant failed to state a cognizable claim on appeal,” relying on People v. Csaszar, 2013 IL App (1st) 100467, which presents the exact factual scenario in Cotto. ¶ 10 “In Csaszar, defendant hired a private attorney to draft and file his postconviction petition, alleging various claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. The State filed a motion to dismiss the petition, which was subsequently granted. Csaszar, 2013 IL App (1st) 100467, ¶¶ 12-13. On appeal, defendant did not contest the dismissal of his petition on the merits, but argued instead that privately retained counsel did not provide him reasonable assistance. Csaszar, 2013 IL App (1st) 100467, ¶ 15. There, we held that although a pro se defendant had a right to reasonable assistance from appointed counsel, neither the Act nor case law supported the claim that the State was required to provide reasonable assistance of counsel for any petitioner able to hire his own postconviction counsel, and therefore defendant failed to state a cognizable claim for relief. Csaszar, 2013 IL App (1st) 100467, ¶¶ 18, 25” ¶ 10.

The Cotto court rightfully found Csaszar to be directly on point on the issue before it. Accordingly, the Cotto court held that the dismissal of the defendant’s petition was proper.

A defendant has no constitutional right to assistance of counsel in post-conviction proceedings. See People v. Guest, 166 Ill.2d 381, 412 (Ill. 1995). Rather, the right to counsel is statutory under the Act. Because the right to counsel in post-conviction proceedings is wholly statutory (see 725 ILCS 5/122–4 (West 1998)), post-conviction petitioners are entitled only to the level of assistance provided by the Post–Conviction Hearing Act. People v. Turner, 187 Ill. 2d 406, 410 (Ill. 1999), citing People v. Flores, 153 Ill.2d 264, 276 (Ill. 1992). It is well settled that the Act requires counsel to provide a “reasonable level of assistance” to petitioners in post-conviction proceedings. Id. (citations omitted). To that end, Supreme Court Rule 651 (c) outlines the specific duties of appointed counsel in post-conviction proceedings. Rule 651(c) requires that the record in post-conviction proceedings demonstrate that appointed counsel “has consulted with petitioner either by mail or in person to ascertain his contentions of deprivation of constitutional rights, has examined the record of the proceedings at trial, and has made any amendments to the petitions filed pro se that are necessary for an adequate presentation of petitioner’s contentions.” Id., citing 134 Ill.2d R. 651(c). But Rule 651(c) applies only when the petitioner files his original post-conviction petition pro se, and not when the petitioner obtains the assistance of retained counsel. People v. Csaszar, 2013 IL App (1st) 100467, ¶ 16 (citations omitted).

The Csaszar court held that “no authority in either the Act or case law to support the claim that the State must assure that a defendant obtains from retained counsel reasonable assistance in postconviction proceedings. We find that the State has no duty to provide counsel, and no duty to provide reasonable assistance of counsel, for any petitioner able to hire his own counsel.” ¶ 18, citing 725 ILCS 5/122–1 et seq. (West 2006).

The defendant in Csaszar arguedthat the General Assembly’s decision to afford indigent petitioners reasonable assistance of counsel, but not to assure reasonable assistance to postconviction petitioners who hire their own attorneys, violates his right to equal protection of the laws. Csaszar, 2013 IL App (1st) 100467 at ¶ 19. But the court disagreed, noting that “States do not violate the equal protection clause when they provide benefits to indigents that they do not provide to persons with sufficient means to purchase the benefits. Carmichael, 301 U.S. at 515, 57 S.Ct. 868. The classification of prisoners as indigent or non-indigent, and the provision of counsel only to the indigent, bears a fair relationship to a legitimate public purpose of providing assistance of counsel for postconviction petitioners unable to retain private counsel. See Plyler, 457 U.S. at 216, 102 S.Ct. 2382. The State’s decision to provide competent counsel only for indigent defendants, while leaving postconviction petitioners who can afford counsel responsible for finding competent counsel, does not violate the right of the nonindigent to equal protection of the laws.” Id.

I will be the first to admit that I really don’t understand why a defendant who retains private counsel is not guaranteed reasonable assistance of counsel under the Act. With the constitutional right to counsel outside of the statutory framework of the Act, “the right to effective assistance of counsel is absolute, even when private counsel is retained.” See People v. Joseph, 46 Ill. App. 3d 835, 836 (3d Dist. 1977), citing People v. Allen, 132 Ill.App.2d 1015 (3d Dist. 1971) (emphasis added). In other words, counsel’s performance at trial an on appeal is measured by the same standard, whether counsel’s client is indigent or not. I fail to see how it should be any different under the Act. “Reasonable assistance” of counsel is merely a level assistance that counsel is required to render to defendants in proceedings brought pursuant to the Act. Like the constitutional standard of “effective assistance” of counsel, the standard by which a post-conviction attorney’s performance is measured should not be dependent on whether his client is indigent or not. Those two variables should, at least in theory, bear no relationship, as there are sound public policy reasons for treating indigent and non-indigent clients alike. As with the constitutional right to the effective of assistance of counsel at trial and on appeal, a defendant in a post-conviction proceeding should be entitled to the reasonable assistance of counsel, whether he is indigent or not.

Being represented by counsel on post-conviction helps to avoid waiver issues. (People v. Reed, 2014 IL App (1st) 122610)

People v. Reed, 2014 IL App (1st) 122610 (December 31, 2014) (Court opinion corrected 2/3/15.) Cook Co., 5th Div. Affirmed. A jury found defendant Devin Reed guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and residential burglary. Reed’s murder conviction and natural life sentence were affirmed on appeal, but his convictions and sentences for armed robbery and burglary were reversed. Reed then filed a pro se post-conviction petition, which was dismissed by the trial court at first-stage as being frivolous and patently without merit. This appeal followed.

Reed’s post-conviction petition claimed that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to file a motion to suppress statements that Reed made to an ASA. Reed also asserted other garden variety claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Reed also claimed that the trial court erred by allowing the State to engage in various forms of misconduct. Reed claimed that appellate counsel was ineffective because, among other claims, appellate counsel failed to raise the ineffective assistance of trial counsel issues, the trial court’s errors, and the prosecutor’s alleged misconduct.

On appeal, “Reed first contends his appellate counsel was ineffective in failing to argue the prosecutors and police failed to honor Reed’s requests to remain silent and for counsel, and interrogated him in violation of his fifth amendment rights. Reed also contends his appellate counsel was ineffective for arguing that, pursuant to Smith and People v. Bailey, 2013 IL 113690, the treatment of his general guilty verdict as a verdict of felony murder made him legally ineligible for a natural life sentence.” ¶ 41.

The State responded that “Reed’s petition not only fails to state the gist of these claims, but also fails to raise them at all, resulting in forfeiture of these claims on appeal.” ¶ 43. Section 725 ILCS 5/122-3 address the issue of waiver: “Any claim of substantial denial of constitutional rights not raised in the original or an amended petition is waived.”; People v. Pendleton, 223 Ill. 2d 458, 475 (2006) (reiterating that a claim not raised in a postconviction petition cannot be raised for the first time on appeal). This court lacks the authority to excuse an appellate forfeiture caused by the failure of a litigant to include issues in his or her postconviction petition. See People v. Jones, 213 Ill. 2d 498, 507-08 (2004). “As our supreme court noted in Jones, attempts by counsel to raise claims for the first time on appeal from the first-stage dismissal of a postconviction petition are understandable, but simply not permitted under the Act.” ¶ 43.

Reed’s ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claims were argued on appeal for the first time, instead of being brought in his initial pro se petition. As our supreme court noted in Jones, attempts by counsel to raise claims for the first time on appeal from the first-stage dismissal of a postconviction petition are understandable, but simply not permitted under the Act: “[T]he typical pro se litigant will draft an inartful pleading which does not survive scrutiny under the ‘frivolity/patently without merit’ standard of section 122-2.1, and it is only during the appellate process, when the discerning eyes of an attorney are reviewing the record, that the more complex errors that a nonattorney cannot glean are discovered. The appellate attorney, not wishing to be remiss in his or her duty, then adds the newly discovered error to the appeal despite the fact that the claim was never considered by the trial court in the course of its ruling. *** [T]he attorney is zealously guarding the client’s rights and is attempting to conserve judicial resources by raising the claim expeditiously at the first available chance. These goals are laudable, but they nonetheless conflict with the nature of appellate review and the strictures of the Act.” Jones, 213 Ill. 2d at 504-05. ¶ 43.

Accordingly, the Reed court held that “Reed’s petition does not clearly set forth the claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel now raised on appeal, resulting in forfeiture of these claims on appeal” for reasons stated above. The court then engaged in an alternative discussion of the merits of defendant’s claims, but the merits are purely academic at this point because the defendant’s claims are barred by waiver.

“In sum, the issues Reed’s counsel attempted to raise on appeal are forfeited because Reed failed to raise them in his postconviction petition. Even if Reed’s claims were not forfeited, they are frivolous and patently without merit, because Reed failed to attach supporting material and appellate counsel was not required to anticipate Bailey, which was decided after Reed’s direct appeals had concluded. In addition, Reed’s natural life sentence is not void because our supreme court’s decision in Bailey announced a new rule of constitutional procedure that does not apply retroactively to these postconviction proceedings. For all of the aforementioned reasons, the judgment of the circuit court of Cook County is affirmed.” 
¶ 94.

This case underscores the importance of filing counseled post-conviction petitions. Not only does a counseled post-conviction petition automatically survive summary dismissal (where the trial court dismisses the petition without input from counsel, argument, further briefing, etc.), but it also provides the defendant with an opportunity to avoid forfeiture of important issues on appeal that pro se defendants typically cannot articulate, whether it is through a lack of skill and experience, a lack of resources and access to information, or both. Appellate lawyers—especially OSAD lawyers—are very, very adept at spotting and developing issues from the record, but as Reed shows, this exercise will be rendered largely academic if the defendant’s claims are not properly preserved and articulated at the trial court level, before it reaches the desk of the appellate practitioner.