Court’s order denying motion for leave to file successive petition reversed where trial court failed to consider youthful characteristics of defendant at sentencing

The appellant in People v. Parker, 2019 IL App (5th) 150192 appealed the decision of the Circuit Court of Washington County denying his motion for leave to file successive post-conviction petition.

Leonard Parker was charged with four counts of first degree murder based on a theory of accountability related to the stabbing of a victim by a co-defendant, during the course of a robbery and residential burglary in September of 2000. Parker was 16 years old at the time of arrest. Id. at ¶ 2. Shortly thereafter, Parker entered into a negotiated plea agreement in which he pled guilty to one count of first-degree murder in exchange for the dismissal of the other three charges and a sentence not to exceed 50 years imprisonment. Parker was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of $10,000 at his December 2000 sentencing hearing. Id. at ¶ 4.

In January of 2001, Parker filed a motion for leave to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing that he entered his guilty plea without sufficient understanding and contemplation of the serious nature of the consequences, was under pressure from his parents, and had insufficient discussions with his counsel. This motion was accompanied by a motion to reconsider the sentence, arguing that his sentence was excessive. Parker later withdrew the motion after being admonished that moving forward would result in a criminal trial for all four counts of first-degree murder. Id. at ¶ 5. The court denied the motion to reconsidering his sentence, noting that the withdrawal of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea forbid him from challenging his sentence. Id. at ¶ 6.

In 2010, Parker filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel based on: newly discovered evidence that police had ignored his parents’ request not to question him until they were present; that his counsel did not inquire as to whether he was questioned outside his parents’ presence; that he was coerced into entering a guilty plea by his counsel and parents (where his plea was based on a misinterpretation of the sentencing range); and that he was coerced by counsel to withdraw his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Id. at ¶ 7. The petition advanced to second stage proceedings, where the State successfully moved to dismiss the petition based on the fact that it was filed beyond the time allowed under the Act. The dismissal was affirmed upon appeal. Id. at ¶ 8.

In 2015, Parker filed a pro se motion for leave to file a successive petition for post-conviction relief, which argued that his sentence amounted to a de facto life sentence in violation of the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution, citing Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). Id. at ¶ 9. The trial court denied the motion, challenging Parker’s assertion that 35 years amounted to a de facto life sentence and argued that Miller only applied to mandatory life sentences. This appeal followed.

In its analysis of Miller, the Appellate Court noted that in the period between filing Parker’s appeal and their review of the case, the Illinois Supreme Court had extended the holding of Miller in People v. Holman, 2017 IL 120655, which established “that life sentences for juvenile defendants, whether mandatory or discretionary, were disproportionate and violated the eighth amendment unless the trial court considered the offender’s youth and its attendant circumstances.” Id. at ¶ 13.

The Court also noted that in the subsequent cases of Reyes and Buffer, the Illinois Supreme Court held that “sentencing a juvenile offender to a mandatory term of years that was the functional equivalent of life without the possibility of parole (de facto life sentence) constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment” and “a prison sentence of 40 years or less imposed on a juvenile offender does not constitute a de facto life sentence in violation of the eighth amendment because it provides some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at ¶ 14-15.

The appellate court held that Parker demonstrated cause because “Reyes and Buffer had not been decided when he filed his initial post-conviction petition and, thus, was not available to” him at the time of filing. Moreover, the Court ruled that although his sentence was below the line drawn in Buffer and is not a de facto life sentence, Parker still demonstrated prejudice, in that he showed a reasonable probability that he would have achieved a better result if the trial court had correctly applied the constitutional limitations of juvenile sentences (considering that Buffer applies retroactively). Id. at ¶ 18.

Ultimately, the appellate court held that retroactive application of Buffer constitutes cause and prejudice for purposes of being granted leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, reversed the decision of the Circuit Court of Washington County denying Parker’s motion for leave, and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at ¶ 18.

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