Order Denying Leave to File Successive Petition Reversed Where Firearm Enhancement Violated Proportionate Penalties Clause

The appellant in People v. Womack, 2020 IL App (3d) 170208 appealed the trial court’s dismissing his motion for leave to file successive post-conviction petition, which alleged that Womack satisfied the cause-and-prejudice test by demonstrating that the 20-year firearm enhancement added to his sentence violated the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution and under Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). The Appellate Court of Illinois Third District ultimately reversed the decision of the circuit court and remanded for second-stage proceedings.

Robert Womack was originally charged with attempted first-degree murder, aggravated battery with a firearm, and aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. At trial, evidence established that Womack was 16 years old at the time of the shooting. Id. at ¶ 3. It was also revealed that the victim in this case, Michael McCarns, had been involved in a verbal altercation which later escalated into McCarns threatening to shoot Womack’s entire family. Id. at ¶ 3. Womack shot McCarns, who was paralyzed from the shooting. Womack admitted to shooting McCarns, but said that he had threatened him.

Following his conviction, Womack faced a minimum sentence of 26 years in prison. Id. at ¶ 5. The PSI revealed that Womack had struggled academically throughout his childhood, had trouble with his peers and was often teased, and was removed from school following a serious car accident in the 9th grade. Womack did not have a criminal record before the offenses for which he was convicted. At the sentencing hearing, the court noted that Womack did not display any remorse for the victim and, at its discretion, sentenced Womack to 18 years for the first-degree murder, plus a 20-year mandatory firearm enhancement, resulting in a 38-year-sentence. Id. at ¶ 6.

On direct appeal, the conviction for attempted murder was affirmed while the aggravated unlawful use of a weapon conviction was reversed. Womack then filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging that the mandatory sentencing provisions that resulted in his 38-year sentence violated his due process rights and that he was denied effective assistance of counsel and the right to an impartial jury. Id. at ¶ 7. The petition was denied by the trial court, which found that the firearm enhancement was constitutional pursuant to People v. Sharpe, 216 Ill 2d 481 (2005).

On appeal, Womack did not challenge the constitutionality of the firearm enhancement, and the appellant court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Womack’s petition. Womack, seven years later, moved for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, alleging, in light of Miller, that the statutory scheme that led to his sentence violated the federal and state constitutions, facially and as applied. Id. at ¶ 8. The trial court denied leave to file the petition, noting that his “undeniably harsh” sentence was imposed after consideration of mitigating and aggravating factors. Id. at ¶ 9. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Womack contended that the trial court erred in denying his motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, arguing that he sufficiently alleged cause-and-prejudice by demonstrating that, under Miller, the firearm enhancement violated the proportionate penalties clause as applied to him. Id. at ¶ 13. The Appellate Court noted that the proportionate penalties clause requires that “all penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” Id. at ¶ 14. Moreover, the court noted that a violation may be found where the penalty imposed is “cruel, degrading, or so wholly disproportionate to the offense as to shock the moral sense of the community.”

In determining whether Womack’s punishment met such a threshold, the court considered the gravity of the offense in connection with the severity of the mandated sentence within the community’s evolving standard of decency. Id. at ¶ 14. To that end, the court noted that recent Illinois case law “demonstrates the mandatory imposition of firearm enhancements for juveniles no longer reflects Illinois’ evolving standard of decency.” Id. at ¶ 15. The court, in Barnes, 2018 IL App (5th) 140378, and Aikens, 2016 IL App (1st) 133578, held this, finding that 15-year and 20-year enhancements for possession and use (respectively) of a firearm violated the Illinois constitution, as applied to juvenile offenders. Further, under Illinois law, trial courts now have the discretion to decline to impose the enhancements on juvenile offenders. Id. at ¶ 16.

As such, the Appellate Court held that “applying the 20-year mandatory firearm enhancement to appellant in this case violates the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois constitution.” Id. at ¶ 17. The court further concluded that Womack’s claim satisfied both prongs of the cause-and-prejudice test for successive post-conviction petitions. Id. at ¶ 18. Ultimately, the Appellate Court held that Womack’s motion for leave to file his successive post-conviction petition should have been granted. The Court remanded the cause for second-stage proceedings to allow for the requisite factual development of those constitutional claims. Id. at ¶ 22.

The judgment of the Circuit Court of Kankakee County was reversed and remanded with directions.

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