Post-conviction petition found meritless because evidence of petitioner’s guilt was overwhelming

The appellant in People v. Carlisle, 2019 IL App (1st) 162259, appealed the trial court’s order dismissing his pro se petition for post-conviction relief as frivolous and patently without merit on grounds that the petition stated the gist of a constitutional claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Id. at ¶ 2. The appellate court was unable to find that trial or appellate counsel was ineffective and therefore affirmed the decision of the trial court.

Prior to engaging in their review of the claims brought by appellant, the appellate court noted that any defendant raising a claim concerning appellate counsel must “show both that appellate counsel’s performance was deficient and that, but for counsel’s errors, there is a reasonable probability that the appeal would have been successful.” Id. at ¶ 3. As a result, the court held that in order to succeed on the claim raised on appeal, appellant must show both (1) ineffective assistance of trial counsel and (2) ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, because any court must consider first whether trial counsel was ineffective. Thus, the court considered first whether trial counsel was ineffective, even though appellant did not raise that claim.

Carlisle was found guilty at jury trial of attempted murder and sentenced to 60 years DOC. Id. at ¶ 1. At trial, the State’s evidence established that Carlisle fired two rounds from sawed-off shotgun at police officers, who were called to investigate a disturbance. Carlisle fled the scene and was subsequently arrested. Id. at ¶ 6. The State’s evidence consisted of the testimony of eight witnesses, including the injured officer, arresting office, a forensic scientist and the assistant State’s Attorney. Id. at ¶ 8.

At the conclusion of the State’s case, defense counsel moved for a directed verdict, which was denied. All of the State’s exhibits were subsequently entered into evidence without objection by defense counsel. Id. at ¶ 37.  The defense’s case consisted of two key witnesses: (1) Guadalupe Vazquez, defendant’s then-girlfriend and now wife, and (2) defendant. Id. at ¶ 38. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Carlisle for five counts of attempted first-degree murder, one count of aggravated battery with a firearm, and one count of aggravated discharge of a firearm. Id. at ¶ 50. Carlisle unsuccessfully argued his motion for a new trial prior to being sentenced to 60 years DOC. Id. at ¶ 52.

On direct appeal, Carlisle claimed (1) that the trial court erred by barring the testimony of the defense’s proposed expert witness, Donald Mastrianni, a gun store owner who would have opined that defendant’s sawed-off shotgun was not deadly at the distance from which it was fired; (2) that defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to lay a proper foundation to introduce into evidence a supplementary investigation report from Detective Christopher Pavini, which defendant claims would have impeached the testimonies of Vicari and Carr; and (3) that the mittimus should be corrected to reflect only two counts of attempted first degree murder and that the counts of aggravated battery with a firearm and aggravated discharge of a firearm should be merged into the two counts of attempted first degree murder. Id. at ¶ 54. The State and court agreed with the third claim and corrected the mittimus accordingly. However, neither of the other two claims brought by appellant were persuasive to the court, resulting in the court affirming his conviction and sentence. Id. at ¶ 54.

During post-conviction proceedings, the sole issue raised by Carlisle was whether his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise a claim about his trial counsel’s ineffectiveness with respect to certain photographs. Id. at ¶ 56. As noted by the court, the first step in making a determination in this matter was to consider whether trial counsel was in fact ineffective. In light of the overwhelming evidence of appellant’s guilt, the trial court found the petition frivolous and patently without merit. Id. at ¶ 59. This appeal followed.

The court’s review of this appeal was conducted de novo. On appeal, Carlisle asserted two layers of ineffective assistance of counsel. First, he asserts that counsel on his direct appeal was ineffective for failing to assert the ineffective assistance of his trial counsel. However, the court noted that counsel on his direct appeal did, in fact, assert the ineffective assistance of trial counsel on different grounds. Id. at ¶ 71. Appellant claimed on this appeal that trial counsel was additionally ineffective for failing to object to the publication in the jury room of photographs of a bloody police vest and radio.

The appellate court looked to the two-prong test established in Strickland v. Washington, which requires an appellant to prove both (1) his attorney’s actions constituted errors so serious as to fall below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) absent these errors, there was a reasonable probability that his trial would have resulted in a different outcome. Id. at ¶ 74. The court further determined that one prong of the Strickland test does not need to be considered if another prong cannot be satisfied.

On the second prong of the Strickland test, the court held it need not determine if trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the publication in the jury room of the photographs as the “overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt in this case precludes defendant from being capable of showing that there was a reasonable probability that the outcome of this case would have been different if the photographs had not been published in the jury room.” Id. at ¶ 81. The court concluded that “Defendant’s admission at trial that he was the shooter, plus the State’s evidence of officers with bulletproof vests stating, ‘Police,’ engaging in the uniquely police function of patting down and arresting a suspect, while standing next to armed police vehicle…” overwhelmingly established that he knowingly shot at police officers. As such, the court did not make a determination as to whether trial counsel’s performance was deficient. Id. at ¶ 85.

Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Carlisle’s pro se post-conviction petition because it could not find an arguable basis for either prejudice or deficient performance by either counsel. Id. at ¶ 97.

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.

Summary dismissal of petition was proper where appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to argue improper sentencing factors

The appellant in People v. Todd, 2019 IL App (3d) 170153 appealed the trial court’s order summarily dismissing his pro se post-conviction petition on the grounds that the court erred because the petition presented an arguable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Appellate Court of Illinois Third District affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court of Whiteside County.

Todd entered an open plea to one count of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance, which was accepted by the court. Prior to sentencing, the State produced a pre-sentence investigation report (PSI) which stated that Todd had five prior felony convictions. Id. at ¶ 3-4. As a result, at sentencing, the court found, in aggravation, that Todd had a significant history of criminal activity and a prison sentence was necessary to “deter others from committing the same crime.” Id. at ¶ 5. The court further noted the large amount of the controlled substance included in the sale and referred to it as “more than just a casual deal,” prior to sentencing defendant to 25 years’ imprisonment.

On direct appeal, appellant’s counsel unsuccessfully raised claims of ineffective assistance of counsel related assertions made by trial counsel that Todd’s plea deal include a 10-year sentencing cap; that Todd’s plea was not knowingly or voluntarily entered; that he was denied the benefit of the bargain made with the State; and that the court violated his due process rights when it denied his motion to vacate a directed finding. The court affirmed the conviction and sentence. Id. at ¶ 6.

Todd then filed a pro se post-conviction petition which alleged four claims: (1) post-trial counsel provided ineffective assistance, (2) appellate counsel was ineffective, (3) the court had violated appellant’s due process rights, and (4) the court deprived appellant of his due process rights when it considered the amount of the controlled substance as an aggravating factor at sentencing. Id. at ¶ 7. The court found the claims in the petition to be frivolous and patently without merit and summarily dismissed it. This appeal followed.

Todd argued on appeal that the trial court erroneously dismissed his pro se post-conviction petition because it presented an arguable claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, who failed to argue on direct appeal that the court relied on an improper factor at sentencing. The aforementioned factor was the amount of the controlled substance sold, as noted in the pro se petition. Id. at ¶ 9.

The appellate court found that the circuit court properly dismissed the previously raised claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel and due process violations, as the claims were barred by res judicata and waiver. Id. at ¶ 11.

As to the remaining claim, in order to proceed past the first stage of post-conviction proceedings, the court held that the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim must make an arguable assertion that (1) counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) appellant was prejudiced as a result. Id. at ¶ 12. Moreover, the court held that appellant counsel, in general, is not required to brief every conceivable issue and is not incompetent for refraining from raising an issue without merit, unless their evaluation of the merits of a claim is patently wrong. Id. at ¶ 12. The court further acknowledged that while “a factor implicit in the offense for which a defendant has been convicted cannot be used as an aggravating factor in sentencing,” legislative intent may allow such use of the factor. Id. at ¶ 13. The court looked to the plain language of the statute to determine whether use of the factor in appellant’s instance was justified.

Subsection 401(a)(2)(A) of Section 401 of the Illinois Controlled Substances Act criminalizes the offense of possessing with an intent to deliver a substance containing cocaine and provides a sentence of “not less than 6 years and not more than 30 years with respect to 15 grams or more but less than 100 grams of a substance containing cocaine, or an analog thereof.” Id. at ¶ 14. The statute’s sentencing guidelines provide “wide latitude in sentencing discretion” and explicitly allow for the consideration of the amount of the substance as an aggravating factor at sentencing.

That, taken with the additional aggravating factors in the PSI, led the appellate court to conclude that the circuit court properly considered the amount of cocaine during sentencing, and appellate counsel did not have a duty to raise the meritless sentencing issue. Id at ¶ 15.

As such, the Appellate Court of Illinois Third District ruled the circuit court did not err when it summarily dismissed appellant’s pro se post-conviction petition and affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court of Whiteside County.



Illinois Supreme Court grants leave to appeal in several post-conviction cases

The Illinois Supreme Court granted petitions for leave to appeal in a slate of interesting post-conviction cases on September 25, 2019. This means that the court has agreed to hear these appeals, and that its decision in these cases will be binding on all lower appellate and trial courts.

People v. Green, 2019 IL App (2d) 160217-U (link to original opinion)

Defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his post-conviction petition because he established that defense counsel had a per se conflict of interest where counsel previously represented the intended victim of the murder, and defendant neither knew about the conflict nor waived it. The appellate court affirmed and the petitioner is seeking reversal.

People v. Stoecker, 2019 IL App (3d) 160781 (link to original opinion)

Defendant appealed the dismissal of his petition for relief from judgment, arguing that (1) his due process rights were violated where the court did not give him a meaningful opportunity to respond to the State’s motion to dismiss and the court held an ex partehearing on the motion and (2) his counsel did not adequately represent him. The appellate court affirmed and the petitioner is seeking reversal.

People v. Reed, 2019 IL App (4th) 170090 (blog post on opinion)

After an evidentiary hearing, the circuit court denied post-conviction relief to defendant, who is serving a prison sentence of 15 years for armed violence. He appealed, arguing that newly discovered evidence he presented to the court in the post-conviction hearing proved, clearly and convincingly, that he actually was innocent of armed violence despite his earlier negotiated guilty plea to that offense. The appellate court held that petitioner was bound by his guilty plea and that his claim of actual innocence could not be entertained. The petitioner is seeking reversal.

People v. Knapp, 2019 IL App (2d) 160162 (blog post on opinion)

Defendant filed a post-conviction petition arguing that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance to him by misleading the defendant into giving up his right to testify. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s first stage dismissal of defendant’s post-conviction petition where petition failed to state that defendant told trial counsel that he wanted to testify and where record rebutted petitioner’s claim. The petitioner is seeking reversal.

People v. Jackson, 2018 IL App (1st) 171773 (original opinion)

Defendant filed a post-conviction petition alleging actual innocence, arguing that his conviction was obtained by the prior inconsistent statements of three witnesses, who testified that their inconsistent statements resulted from police coercion, which was documented in that police department. The trial court denied the petition, and the appellate court affirmed. The petitioner is seeking reversal.

Appellate court held that mandamus petition could not be dismissed sua sponte

The appellant in Williams v. Dorethy, 2019 IL App (3d) 180135 appealed the decision of the trial court dismissing his mandamus petition sua sponte, on the grounds the court erred in doing so. Ultimately, the Third District reversed the trial court and remanded.

Keith Williams filed a pro se request for leave to file a mandamus petition against the defendants related to various violations and/or abuses of prison policies by HCC administration and staff, while incarcerated. Id. at ¶ 3. Two days later, the trial court allowed the petition to be filed, but dismissed the petition prior to any of the named defendants being served. Id. at ¶ 4. The trial court, in its order dismissing the petition, stated “your petition is an amalgamation of every complaint that you have against the Department of Corrections, against the Judgement of Conviction… and really countless other grievances, none of which touch on the simple 4 requirements of a Mandamus complaint.” Id. at ¶ 4. Williams appealed.

On appeal, Williams argued that the trial court erred in its dismissal of his mandamus petition. Id. at ¶ 7. The appellate court noted that “mandamus is an extraordinary remedy appropriate to enforce as a matter of public right the performance of official duties by a public officer where no exercise of discretion on his part is involved.” Id. at ¶ 9. The court further noted that provisions on mandamus contained in the Code of Civil Procedure provide a framework for trial courts to follow once a mandamus petition has been filed. Id. at ¶ 9. The court identified a previous case, Carroll v. Akpore, 2014 IL App (3d) 130731, with virtually identical circumstances, which addressed the question of whether a circuit court can sua sponte dismiss a mandamus petition. Id. at ¶ 10. Notably, the Carroll court held that the mandamus provisions in the Code did not provide for “summary dismissal” of the petition, ruled that the trial court erred in its sua sponte dismissal of the plaintiff’s petition, and remanded for service of the petition on the defendants. Id. at ¶ 11. The court concluded that despite the fact that a petition may lack merit, the trial court is not permitted to disregard the procedural framework provided in the Code. Id. at ¶ 11.

The appellate court stated that they should reach the same outcome as the court did in Carroll, noting that the trial court failed to follow the clear statutory procedure contained in the Code. Id. at ¶ 12. As such, the Third District ultimately determined that the trial court erred when it sua sponte dismissed Williams’ petition. Id. at ¶ 12. The judgement of the Circuit Court of Knox County was reversed and remanded. Id. at ¶ 15.

Appellate court affirmed dismissal of petition where prior inconsistent statements were admissible

The appellant in People v. Wesley, 2019 IL App (1st) 170442, appealed the trial court’s order dismissing his post-conviction petition at the first stage of post-conviction proceedings, on the grounds that he was denied due process and effective assistance of counsel by both his trial and appellate counsel. The appellate court affirmed.

Terrell Wesley was charged and convicted of first degree murder for a 2008 shooting outside a grocery store in Maywood, Illinois. At his 2010 bench trial, Wesley was only identified by one witness, Jason Ervin, who testified that he’d seen Wesley leaving the store, walking backwards, and holding a firearm. Ervin also identified the vehicle Wesley left the scene in by make, color and plate number. Id. at ¶ 4. Wesley was described by Ervin as a “black man with short dreads.” In addition to Ervin, two other witnesses observed a man matching Ervin’s description leaving the grocery store with a firearm pointed at the store and entering the vehicle described by Ervin. Id. at ¶ 5.

During trial proceedings, Wesley’s girlfriend, Shara Cannon, provided inconsistent testimony before the grand jury and at trial regarding Wesley’s hairstyle, whether or not he was riding in her vehicle on the day of the shooting, and whether or not she was present at the time of the shooting. Id. at ¶ 7. Another associate of Wesley’s, Pierre Robinson, also provided testimony inconsistent with his statements to the grand jury during trial.

When pressed at trial, Robinson claimed police threatened to charge him with the murder if he did not implicate Wesley in the shooting. Id. at ¶ 9. At the trial’s conclusion, the court determined that Cannon and Robinson’s trial testimony was not credible; however, it found their grand jury testimony to be admissible as substantive evidence. Welsey was found guilty. Id. at ¶ 10.

Wesley then filed a motion for a new trial, alleging that neither Cannon nor Robinson had personal knowledge of the matter and that the court erred in considering their testimony as substantive. The court disagreed and denied the motion for a new trial. Id. at ¶ 11. Wesley was sentenced to 50 years’ imprisonment, and Wesley appealed. On direct appeal, Wesley alleged that he was deprived his right to a fair trial and his right to counsel because the court decided the case before the presentation of closing arguments. The appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s ruling, finding that the court acknowledged its error, permitted the parties to give closing arguments, and reconsidered everything in light of those arguments before issuing its ruling. Id. at ¶ 12.

Wesley then filed a pro se post-conviction petition, arguing among other things, that the admission of Cannon’s and Robinson’s prior inconsistent statements was a constitutional error depriving him of his due process rights. Wesley also alleged ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel for failing to bring this error to the court’s attention Id. at ¶ 13. The circuit court summarily dismissed the petition as frivolous and patently without merit, as counsel had objected to the admission of the testimony in question. Wesley then moved to file a late notice of appeal, which was allowed by the court and became the substance of this appeal.

On appeal, the appellate court acknowledged that a petition at the first stage of post-conviction proceedings must meet a low survival threshold, which allows courts to dismiss petitions only if they are frivolous or patently without merit, or, having “no arguable basis either in law or fact” or reliant on “indisputably meritless legal theories or fanciful factual allegations.” Id. at ¶ 17.

On the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the court noted that in order to prevail, an appellant must show that counsel’s performance was deficient, and that the resulting deficient representation was prejudicial. Id. at ¶ 20. Wesley argued that his counsel’s failure to object to the admission of Cannon’s and Robinson’s testimony on the basis that they lacked personal knowledge of the murder rendered counsel’s assistance ineffective. Id. at ¶ 21. Substantively, both witnesses admitted that they heard Wesley admit to shooting someone. Wesley did not assert the inconsistency of statements made before the grand jury and at trial, but rather that their testimony was simply inadmissible because neither witness had direct knowledge of the shooting.

The court noted that Wesley failed to take into consideration section 115-10 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which does not require a witness’ testimony to be based on personal knowledge. Id. at ¶ 24. As a result, the court found that both individual’s testimony satisfied the rule under section 115-10 of the Code and Rule 602. Id. at ¶ 26. Moreover, the inclusion of the videotaped and written statements from both witnesses in closing statements, acknowledged by the appellate court to be inadmissible, was considered by the court to be a “harmless error” which had no reasonable probability of resulting in an acquittal absent inclusion. Id. at ¶ 27-28.

Ultimately, the court held that Wesley’s arguments, both in the context of due process and ineffective assistance of counsel claims, lacked even superficial legal merit and ruled that the post-conviction petition was properly dismissed. Id. at ¶ 30. The appellate court affirmed.

Appellate Court considers whether a clemency decision is reviewable and subject to constitutional challenge

The appellant in People v. Ramsey, 2019 IL App (3d) 160759, appealed the trial court’s order dismissing his post-conviction petition at the second stage of post-conviction proceedings, on grounds that the court erred by ruling, among other things, that an executive commutation could not be judicially reviewed. Ultimately, Third District affirmed.

Daniel Ramsey was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, one count of aggravated criminal sexual assault, one count of home invasion, and one count of residential burglary. At the time Ramsey committed the crimes, he was 18 years old. Ramsey initially received the death penalty. Id. at ¶ 4. However, Ramsey’s convictions were reversed by the supreme court, but Ramsey once again received another death penalty sentence. Ramsey’s sentences were affirmed by the supreme court on appeal. Id. at ¶ 6.

In February 2011, Ramsey filed a pro se post-conviction petition. While that petition was pending, in March 2011, Illinois abolished the death penalty, leading Governor Pat Quinn to commute Ramsey’s death sentence to natural life in prison without the possibility of parole. Id. at ¶ 7. Following the commutation of his sentence, Ramsey amended his post-conviction petition and argued, among other things, that the commutation of his sentence violated his constitutional rights under the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution and the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution in that the new sentence failed to consider his age and mitigating factors. Id. at ¶ 8.

The petition was advanced to the second stage of post-conviction proceedings, during which the State filed a motion to dismiss. The circuit court granted the State’s motion, ruling that Governor Quinn’s commutation order was not subject to judicial review. Id. at ¶ 9. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Ramsey argued that the circuit court erred in dismissing his post-conviction petition because his commuted sentence did not take into consideration his youth and other mitigating factors. Id. at ¶ 12. The appellate court’s review was conducted de novo.

In its review, the appellate court acknowledged the breadth of the clemency powers granted to the governor, citing holdings by the supreme court in Madigan v. Snyder, 208 Ill. 2d 457, 474 (2004) that “the Governor’s clemency powers granted by the constitution cannot be controlled either by the courts or the legislature” and in People v. Mata, 217 Ill. 2d 535, 541 (2005), where the court held “[t]he clemency power granted by the Illinois Constitution is not subject to control by the courts or the legislature, but can be controlled only by the Governor’s conscience and sense of public duty.” Id. at ¶ 15.

However, the court also determined that, in accordance with holdings in Mata related to due process issues, “executive clemency is not immune from judicial review if it violates the Constitution.” Id. at ¶ 20. As such, the court disagreed with the State’s argument that the appellate court’s review was precluded by the clemency powers granted to the Governor and proceeded to address whether appellant Ramsey’s due process rights were violated with the imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Id. at ¶ 21.

On the eighth amendment claim, the court determined that the eighth amendment claim brought by Ramsey failed under Miller, as Ramsey was 18 years old at the time he committed the crimes for which he was sentenced, and Miller only applies to juveniles under the age of 18. Id. at ¶ 22.

On the proportionate penalties clause claim, the court found “nothing in the record to indicate that Governor Quinn’s executively imposed sentence shocks the moral sense of the community, despite Ramsey’s protestations to the contrary.” Id. at ¶ 23. Specifically, on the crimes themselves, the court stated that the circumstances of the acts for which Ramsey was charged could not warrant leniency, which could justify a proportionality claim.

Ultimately, the Appellate Court of Illinois Third District ruled that while the exercise of clemency by the Governor is not wholly unfettered, the commuted death penalty sentence, resulting in a sentence of life without parole for appellant Ramsey, did not violate either the state of United States Constitution. As such, the Appellate Court of Illinois Third District affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court of Hancock County.