Court holds that an acquittal does equate to factual innocence

The appellant in People v. Quickle, 2019 IL App (3d) 170281 appealed the trial court’s order denying his motion for leave to file a second successive postconviction petition. Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed the trial court.

Donald Quickle was charged with several counts of murder and armed robbery. Initially, Quickle pled guilty to all counts, but later withdrew his plea. Quickle was then convicted at a jury trial of first degree murder and armed robbery and sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 60 years and 30 years, respectively. Id. at ¶ 7. On direct appeal, the appellate court affirmed both Quickle’s convictions and sentences. Id. at ¶ 8. Shortly thereafter, Quickle filed a pro se post-conviction petition and post-conviction counsel was appointed. Post-conviction counsel filed an amended petition on Quickle’s behalf, alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel and denial of due process. The State filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court entered an order dismissing the due process claim, based on waiver, but allowed the ineffective assistance of counsel claim to proceed. At the third stage evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the petition, finding that trial counsel was “not deficient in any respect.” Id. at ¶ 8.

Quickle appealed, arguing that he was denied reasonable assistance of post-conviction counsel. The court agreed and remanded the case to the trial court with directions that new post-conviction counsel be appointed and be allowed to re-plead the due process claim. On remand, an amended petition was filed, and the claim was dismissed (and affirmed by this court) at a third-stage evidentiary hearing. Id. at ¶ 10.

A year later, Quickle filed a motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, alleging that he was denied reasonable assistance of appellate counsel. This was summarily denied, and the appellate court affirmed. Id. at ¶ 11. Quickle then filed a “Petition to Vacate Void Sentences” pursuant to section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Following a motion to dismiss by the State, the petition was dismissed by the trial court. After an additional unsuccessful attempt at filing a petition for relief from judgment, Quickle filed a motion for leave to file his second successive post-conviction petition, alleging his actual innocence of intentional murder under People v. Smith, 233 Ill. 2d 1 (2009). The motion was denied, and this appeal followed. Id. at ¶ 13.

The appellate court noted that under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act, there are two bases upon which the bar against successive proceedings may be relaxed: 1) when a petitioner can establish “cause and prejudice” for failure to raise the claim earlier, and 2) when a petitioner shows “actual innocence,” which is asserted by appellant in this instance. Id. at ¶ 17. In support of an actual innocence claim, evidence must be 1) newly discovered, (2) material and not merely cumulative, and 3) of such conclusive character that it would probably change the result on retrial. Id. at ¶ 18.

The court further explained that “actual innocence” means “total vindication or exoneration” and an “acquittal alone is insufficient to prove actual innocence. Id. at ¶ 19. In Smith, the Illinois Supreme Court held that when a defendant charged with intentional murder, knowing murder, and felony murder is denied his request for separate verdict forms and is found guilty of murder by a general verdict, for purposes of sentencing, the guilty verdict must be interpreted as a finding of guilty on the felony murder charge only. Id. at ¶ 21. Moreover, the supreme court has held that a trial courts’ error in refusing a defendant’s request for separate verdict forms requires that a general guilty verdict of first-degree murder be viewed as “an acquittal on the counts of intentional and knowing murder.”

Quickle argued that he fell within the “actual innocence’ exception for successive post-conviction petitions, contending that, pursuant to Smith and Bailey, the general guilty verdict entered against him must be construed as an acquittal of knowing and intentional murder, making him innocent of those types of murder. Id. at ¶ 22. However, the court determined that Quickle had failed to establish “actual innocence” because, as noted by the court’s review of Smith and Bailey, acquittal alone is insufficient to prove actual innocence. Id. at ¶ 23. The court agreed that the trial court erred by denying his request for separate verdict forms, yet determined that the court’s errors resulted in legal innocence, not factual innocence, of intentional and knowing murder. Id. at ¶ 24. As such, the court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

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