Illinois Supreme Court declines to extend Krankel hearings to post-conviction cases

The petitioner in People v. Custer, 2019 IL 123339, requested the Illinois Supreme Court to extend procedures and protections established in People v. Krankel to claims of unreasonable assistance by post-conviction counsel in proceedings under the Post Conviction Hearing Act. Ultimately, the Supreme Court declined the invitation to expand its application of Krankel.

Custer was initially charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Custer entered an open guilty plea to the charge. Prior to sentencing, petitioner was arrested again and charged with unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon, aggravated assault, unlawful use of a weapon, and aggravated battery. Id. at ¶ 4. Petitioner then failed to return for sentencing in the initial drug case and was subsequently arrested again. At sentencing, petitioner was sentenced to the maximum sentence of six years in prison. Id. at ¶ 5. Petitioner entered a negotiated plea to the charges of aggravated battery and unlawful possession of a weapon in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining charges. Petitioner was sentenced to consecutive 4 ½-year and 5-year sentences in prison. Id. at ¶ 6.

Shortly thereafter, Custer filed a pro se post-conviction petition, alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel in the drug case for failing to appeal or move to withdraw his guilty plea at his request. Id. at ¶ 7. The petition advanced to the second stage of proceedings, where post-conviction counsel was appointed. Post-conviction counsel filed a brief containing four affidavits from petitioner corroborating his claims via by stating that both he and his girlfriend had asked to appeal his conviction and sentence and withdraw his plea. The petition was advanced to the third stage of postconviction proceedings as a result, and a third-stage evidentiary hearing was scheduled. Prior to the hearing, Custer’s girlfriend sent a letter to the trial court (1) refuting petitioner’s innocence, (2) claiming she helped petitioner agree to plead guilty, (3) stating she’d been informed by trial counsel he was filing an appeal, and, (4) post-conviction counsel had refused to take her statement. Id. at ¶ 8.

At the hearing, Custer testified that trial counsel had advised him he’d likely be sentenced to “probation or three years in prison” if he pled guilty to the drug charge. Custer testified that after receiving a six-year sentence, he had requested trial counsel file an appeal. Petitioner further alleged that trial counsel had informed Custer a month following his request that he did not appeal the sentence because he found no viable appellate issues. Id. at ¶ 9. At the hearing, trial counsel denied ever being asked to appeal or withdraw his plea, stating he would have filed for both if petitioner had asked. Id. at ¶ 10. The court found the claims raised by petitioner to be “totally unbelievable” and “clearly contradicted by the facts and circumstances set forth in the record.” Id. at ¶ 12. The court found trial counsel to be “very believable.”

At the hearing on Custer’s motion to reconsider, the trial court immediately denied the motion after the State argued that the motion lacked any valid grounds for reconsideration. Id. at ¶ 14. Custer then filed a successive post-conviction petition, arguing that the trial court erred in denying his reconsideration request without first conducting a Krankel hearing. Despite the fact that Krankel has never been extended to post-conviction proceedings, the appellate court remanded the cause to the trial court for a “Krankel-like inquiry.” Id. at ¶ 15. The state filed a petition for leave to appeal that order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 315(a), which was allowed.

The Supreme Court outlined the question before them as “whether the holding in Krankel, mandating a preliminary inquiry into the factual basis for a defendant’s pro se claim that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance, should be extended to claims involving post-conviction counsel.” Id. at ¶ 17. The Court’s review was conducted de nov oand included evaluations of forfeiture and mootness claims brought by the petitioner, in addition the primary question regarding Krankel.

On the forfeiture issue, the Supreme Court decided to consider the mootness claim, because forfeiture applies exclusively to the parties, not the court. As such, the Court held that they may address the forfeited issues. Id. at ¶ 19. On the mootness issue, the Supreme Court agreed with Custer and rejected the State’s argument that the question was moot because petitioner had already received the requested relief. Id. at ¶ 21. The Court held that the “cursory hearing conducted by the trial court does not demonstrate that it adequately considered petitioner’s pro se claim of inadequate representation pursuant to Krankel.” Id. at ¶ 22.

On the substantive dispute on appeal, the applicability of Krankel to post-conviction counsel, the Court acknowledged that their opinion in Krankel has evolved to provide a means for defendants to assert post-trial claims that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. However, the Court noted that the petitioner’s claim pertained to post-conviction counsel, a new question for the Court.

The Court interpreted Custer’s “largely undefined” request as a question to “determine if conflict-free counsel needs to be appointed to represent [the petitioner] at the hearing on his motion to reconsider.” Id. at ¶ 28.  The Court noted that “criminal defendants seeking relief in postconviction proceedings have no constitutional right to counsel, effective or otherwise” and are entitled to only the “level of assistance guaranteed by the Act,” widely acknowledged to be a “reasonable level.” Id. at ¶ 30. The Court further noted that this standard is significantly lower than the one mandated at trial by the state and federal constitutions. The Court further pointed to Illinois Supreme Court Rules, such as Rule 651, which sharply limited the duties of post-conviction counsel. Id. at ¶ 32.

Despite the limited guarantees afforded to petitioners in post-conviction proceedings, the petitioner relied upon the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in People v. Johnson, 2018 IL 122227, which the court concluded “flatly fails to support petitioner’s contention that Krankel applies to pro se allegations of unreasonable assistance by postconviction counsel.” Id. at ¶ 33.

The Court also adopted the State’s argument that the extension of Krankel would magnify the potential for wasting limited judicial resources and multiply the already heavy strain Krankel places on our trial courts without any additional benefits. Id. at ¶ 35. The court found arguments made by the petitioner in response to this argument as unpersuasive because they had no measurable effect on the outcome of appeals. Id. at ¶ 39. The court concluded that “none of the benefits petitioner cites from extending Krankel to allegations that postconviction counsel provided inadequate assistance are as compelling as they were in their original posttrial context. Consequently, the analytical weight of those benefits in postconviction cases is lower than in our original Krankel calculus, while the weight of the adverse effects on available resources is necessarily higher.” Id. at ¶ 41.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Illinois declined Custer’s invitation to extend the post-trial motion procedures created in Krankel to allegations of unreasonable assistance by post-conviction counsel and remanded the cause to the appellate court for its initial consideration. Id. at ¶ 46.

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