Defendant who bribed a judge, was convicted of murdering a police officer, and was then sentenced to 600 years gets new chance to vacate sentence

The appellant in People v. Carrasquillo, 2020 IL App (1st) 180534 appealed the trial court’s order dismissing his section 2-1401 petition and motion for leave to file his successive post-conviction petition, which argued that the trial court was biased and that the defendant’s sentence was a de facto life sentence that violated the proportional penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution and eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The First District affirmed the court’s dismissal of the section 2-1401 petition and reversed the court’s denial of Carrasquillo’s motion for leave to file his successive post-conviction petition.

Ronnie Carrasquillo was charged with, and convicted of, the murdering Chicago police officer, Terrence Loftus. Carrasquillo was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence of 200 to 600 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Id. at ¶ 1. At trial, evidence established that Carrasquillo was gang-affiliated and was involved in a gang-related fight at the time Officer Loftus was shot. Id. at ¶ 8. On direct appeal, Carrasquillo’s conviction and sentence were affirmed. Id. at ¶ 9. In rejecting the claims brought forward on appeal, the court noted that “a review of the evidence at trial established that defendant was the only one to fire shots at the time Officer Loftus was struck and killed” and, while bullet fragments found at the scene could not be traced directly to his firearm, they were consistent with the type of bullet fired from his gun.

Further, the court rejected the argument that Carrasquillo should have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, as he was allegedly firing at a YMCA building, not Officer Loftus. The court found the evidence presented at trial sufficient for a murder conviction. Finally, the court rejected the argument that Carrasquillo’s sentence was excessive in light of his lack of criminal history and age (he was 18 years old at the time of offense), stating “although [appellant] had not been convicted of any previous crime, his own testimony was that fights involving knives and guns were a frequent occurrence and he had been involved in two such fights in the weeks prior to” the shooting of Officer Loftus. Id. at ¶ 8-11. As such, the conviction and sentence were affirmed.

Following his direct appeal, Carrasquillo filed his first post-conviction petition, which alleged ineffective assistance of counsel, was denied after a hearing, and affirmed on appeal. Id. at ¶ 12. Carrasquillo then filed a section 2-1401 petition, and, later, a motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, which claimed that the trial judge was biased and that his Carrasquillo’s sentence and violated the proportionate penalties’ clause and eighth amendment, respectively. Id. at ¶ 13. At the evidentiary hearing on the petition, the court found that Judge Wilson had accepted a bribe to acquit a defendant in a prior murder case and later committed suicide following a confrontation over an ongoing FBI investigation into the matter. Id. at ¶ 14.

An investigator working on behalf of Carrasquillo testified that he had searched through all published appellate opinions concerning murder convictions and sentences imposed by Judge Wilson from 1970 to 1981 and found that only one defendant had received a sentence as long as defendant. Id. at ¶ 16. In denying appellant’s 2-1401 petition, the trial court rejected appellant’s claim of bias, finding that “the fact that a judge was bribed in one case does not, in itself, establish that he was not impartial in others.” Id. at ¶ 18.

Carrasquillo had argued that both cases should be viewed as connected because they took place in the same year and were equally high profile, and Judge Wilson may have been influenced by the potential for his own rehabilitation by showing he was tough on crime. The trial court rejected that argument, finding that the defense had not made a legally sufficient showing of a nexus between the two cases. Id. at ¶ 19. Further, the trial court found that Carrasquillo had failed to establish actual bias because both claims regarding the excessiveness of his sentence and improper conviction of murder had already been rejected on direct appeal. Id. at ¶ 21. The section 2-1401 petition was denied.

On the motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition, the trial court found that while Carrasquillo had established cause for not including the current claim (of a de facto life sentence violating the proportionate penalties clause and eighth amendment protections) in his earlier petition, he had failed to establish prejudice. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26. The court determined that Carrasquillo’s sentence was not a de facto life sentence, as he would be eligible for parole within 20 years, and any allegation that the parole board would act improperly should be adjudicated in a direct action against the board. Id. at ¶ 26. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Carrasquillo challenged both decisions by the trial court. The first claim focused on the trial court’s denial of his 2-1401 petition. In its review, the appellate court noted that relief under section 2-1401 is predicated upon proof by a preponderance of the evidence (1) a defense or claim that would have precluded entry of the judgment in the original action and (2) diligence in both discovering the defense or claim and presenting the petition. Id. at ¶ 32.

Ultimately, the trial court held that, in addition to unsettled disputes regarding the timeliness of the petition, the “trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding, as a factual matter, that there was a lack of evidence of compensatory bias in this case.” Id. at ¶ 50. In support of such a determination, the court noted that the Illinois Supreme Court has routinely held that the mere fact that a judge was “implicated in accepting bribes in other nonrelated cases does not serve to taint all other decisions with which that judge was involved.” Id. at ¶ 53. Further, the court determined that in order to prevail on such a claim, Carrasquillo would have to establish a nexus between the activities being investigated, the judge’s conduct at trial, and actual bias resulting from the judge’s extrajudicial conduct. Id. at ¶ 54. Thus, Carrasquillo was tasked with establishing before the court a nexus between the unrelated bribe and the judge’s conduct in his trial and actual bias by Judge Wilson. Id. at ¶ 57.

Carrasquillo argued that the relationship in time between the bribe and his trial was sufficient to meet these requirements, yet the court disputed the temporal proximity of the two events (having taken place a minimum of seven months apart), found Judge Wilson’s acceptance of a bribe to be a lone event that did not permeate his broader judicial conduct, and rejected the idea that Wilson was laboring under a need to reshape his public image, as argued by appellant. Id. at ¶ 60-66. Thus, the appellate court held that “the trial court’s ruling was[n’t] arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable or [made in such a way] that no reasonable judge could take the view adopted by the trial court.” Id/ at ¶ 67.

The court rejected additional arguments made by Carrasquillo that the presence of police officers in the courtroom impacted the judge’s decision making and that the announcement of the verdict without explanation was indicative of bias. Id. at ¶ 68-69. As to bias and personal interest, because the arguments from the nexus of the bribe were repeated, the court held the same. Id. at ¶ 75. Further, the court reiterated that “there is ample evidence to support the verdict of murder, as opposed to manslaughter, without resorting to an explanation of bias.” Id. at ¶ 78.

As to Carrasquillo motion for leave, he argued that his sentence was a de facto life sentence without parole, imposed for a crime committed when he was 18 years old, that violates both the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution and proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution. Id. at ¶ 86. The trial court had rejected those claims on grounds that Carrasquillo’s sentence was not a de facto life sentence.

The appellate court looked to the recent decision in People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, where the Illinois Supreme Court found that in order to prevail on a claim that a juvenile’s sentence violated the eighth amendment, a juvenile defendant must show both that he was subject to a de facto life sentence and that the sentencing judge failed to take into consideration the defendant’s youth and attendant characteristics. Id. at ¶ 90. The Buffer court drew the line for de facto life sentences in excess of 40 years imprisonment. Id. at ¶ 91. The court noted that there is no evidence in the record that Judge Wilson had taken into consideration Carrasquillo’s “youth and its attendant characteristics” when sentencing Carrasquillo in 1977. Id. at ¶ 92.

The appellate court did note that at the time of the commission of the offense, Carrasquillo was not in fact a juvenile; he was 18 years old. However, the court also acknowledged that both Illinois and national courts have since extended protections to 18+ year old offenders. Id. at ¶ 96. Moreover, the court agreed that the more than 30 rejections by the parole board over 40 years demonstrated the de facto nature of his sentence, as Carrasquillo was not functionally eligible for parole. Id. at ¶ 101. The appellate court found that Carrasquillo had established both cause and prejudice and had already served the enough time in prison to constitute a de facto life sentence under Buffer. Id. at ¶ 108-109. The court found further prejudice in the previous court’s misstatement of his age when originally reviewing his sentence, and determining it was “not excessive.” Id. at ¶ 110. As such, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order on the motion for leave to file a successive post-conviction petition and granted him leave to file that petition.

The First District affirmed, in part, and reversed, in part, the trial court’s judgment on the section 2-1401 petition and order denying Carrasquillo leave to file a successive postconviction petition.

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