Appellate court reverses trial court’s denial of successive petition where defendant shows that trial counsel did not communicate plea offer to him

The appellant in People v. Ryburn, 2019 ILL App (4th) 170779, appealed the trial court’s decision dismissing his successive post-conviction petition at the second stage of proceedings. The Fourth District ultimately reversed the dismissal of the petition and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Ryburn was originally charged with four counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, four counts of criminal sexual assault, and four counts of aggravate criminal sexual abuse for his actions on September 8, 1998. Ryburn pled guilty to three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, pursuant to a plea agreement, in exchange for the State’s dismissal of the remaining nine counts and other unrelated charges, recommendation of an aggregate sentence totaling no more than 60 years, and imposition of no fines. Id. at ¶ 4. Ryburn was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for each of the three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, to be served consecutively. Id. at ¶ 5.

Shortly following sentencing, in December of 1999, Ryburn filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging he did not enter it knowingly and voluntarily. The post-plea motion was denied by the trial court. Id. at ¶ 5. On direct appeal, Ryburn’s convictions and aggregate 60-year sentence were affirmed, despite arguments by appellant that his sentence was unconstitutional. Id. at ¶ 6. In June 2002, Ryburn filed a pro se petition for relief under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act, alleging he received ineffective assistance of counsel for the public defender’s failure to (a) raise a speedy trial claim, (b) call certain alibi witnesses, (c) present evidence to corroborate the alibi, (d) obtain police records to show the victim had a motive to fabricate her complaint, and (e) to decide to hold appellant fit to plead guilty.

Ryburn also alleged ineffective assistance of his appellate counsel for failing to raise the aforementioned issues on appeal. Id. at ¶ 7. The circuit court summarily dismissed the petition as frivolous and patently without merit, which was affirmed upon appeal. In July 2004, Ryburn once again unsuccessfully petitioned the court to set aside the guilty pleas for various claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and violation of supreme court rules. Id. at ¶ 8.

Between 2011 and 2015, Ryburn filed four motions for leave to file a successive post-conviction petitions; the first three were initially denied by the circuit court, then appealed, and dismissed upon appellant’s own motions. Id. at ¶ 10-12. The motions contained claims of actual innocence via involuntary intoxication, a breach of the plea agreement related to the mandatory three-year supervisory release term and claims that forensic evidence did not support the second and third counts of his indictment.

Ryburn’s fourth motion for leave, which was allowed by the court, alleged that the State had tendered a plea offer of 24 years’ imprisonment to the public defender’s office that was never conveyed to him, resulting in 36 more years in prison. Id. at ¶ 13. The petition proceeded through the first stage of postconviction proceedings to the second. At the second stage of proceedings, appointed counsel filed an amended post-conviction petition detailing the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel related to the failure to inform Ryburn of the plea offer and the failure of previous appellate counsel to raise the claim on appeal. Id. at ¶ 14. The court dismissed the amended post-conviction petition, claiming that Ryburn failed to show any objective factor that impeded his ability to raise his claim during the initial or subsequent post-conviction proceedings. Id. at ¶ 15. This appeal followed.

The appellate court determined the circuit court’s focus at the second stage of postconviction proceedings should be determining whether the petition’s allegations sufficiently show a constitutional infirmity that would necessitate relief under the Act. Id. at ¶ 22. The dismissal of a petition at the second stage of proceedings is only warranted when the allegations in the petition fail to make a substantial showing of a constitutional violation. Id at ¶ 22.

The appellate court disagreed with and rejected the State’s argument that the word “trial” in the definition of prejudice precludes a defendant who pleaded guilty from filing a successive post-conviction petition, on the grounds that both legislative intent and state supreme court rulings had indicated as much. Id. at ¶ 28. On appeal, Ryburn contended that his amended successive post-conviction petition made a substantial showing of both cause and prejudice, which was not challenged by the State. As such, the appellate court’s review of the substantiality of the petition’s cause and prejudice showings were conducted individually.

On cause, the court held that cause is shown by identifying an objective factor that impeded his or her ability to raise a specific claim during his or her initial post-conviction proceedings. Id. at ¶ 32. The court held that Ryburn’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims related to the plea offer made by the State in 1998, of which he was never informed by counsel or the State, was an objective, external factor that prevented appellant from raising the issue in the initial post-conviction petition. Id. at ¶ 34-36. The appellate court concluded that appellant did make a substantial showing of cause in this case.

On prejudice, the court held that prejudice is shown 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.” Id. at ¶ 38. To this end, Ryburn alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to inform him of the 1998 plea offer from the State.

Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are analyzed under the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Id. at ¶ 39. To obtain a reversal under Strickland, an appellant must prove (1) his counsel’s performance failed to meet an objective standard of competence and (2) counsel’s deficient performance resulted in prejudice to the defendant.

The appellate court concluded that because the United States Supreme Court has previously held that defense counsel has a duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to defendants (as required by the sixth amendment) and Ryburn provided sufficient evidence of defense counsel’s failure to inform him of the State’s plea offer, he made a substantial showing of the deficiency prong of the Strickland test. Id. at ¶ 41. The appellate court further determined that Ryburn’s petition made a substantial showing of all four elements of the prejudice prong of the Strickland test by demonstrating a reasonable probability that (1) he would have accepted the plea offer but for counsel’s deficient advice, (2) the plea would have been entered without the State canceling it, (3) the circuit court would have accepted the plea bargain, and (4) “the end result of the criminal process would have been more favorable by reason of a plea to a lesser charge or a sentence of less prison time.” Id. at ¶ 42.

Ultimately, the appellate court concluded that Ryburn made a substantial showing of both cause and prejudice and agreed with him that the circuit court erred by granting the State’s motion to dismiss. Id. at ¶ 43. As a result, the Fourth District held that Ryburn’s successive post-conviction petition should advance to the third stage of proceedings for an evidentiary hearing and reversed the decision of the trial court dismissing his petition.

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