The appellant in People v. Harris, 2019 IL App (4th) 170261 appealed the decision of the trial court summarily dismissing his pro se petition for post-conviction relief on the grounds that his petition presented an arguable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to request a continuance to secure witness testimony for his claim of self-defense. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal.
Harris was found guilty on five counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, one count of aggravated battery of a child, one count of home invasion, and one count of armed robbery at his May 2013 trial. Id. at ¶ 4. Harris was sentenced to five terms of natural life imprisonment for the first-degree murder charges, 30 years’ imprisonment for the attempted murder charge, 30 years’ imprisonment for the home invasion charge, and 20 years’ imprisonment for the armed robbery charge, all of which were imposed consecutively. Id. at ¶ 4. Both Harris’ convictions and sentences were affirmed on direct appeal.
In December 2016, Harris filed a pro se post-conviction petition alleging ineffective assistance of his trial counsel for failing to request a continuance on the last day of his trial to secure testimony from two witnesses who would have supported his trial defense of self-defense. Id. at ¶ 5. Harris alleged that the witness testimony from the two surviving members of the incident for which Harris was charged would confirm that another member of the family had threatened to kill the entire family and had only been unable to appear at trial because of a missed flight from Florida to Illinois. Id. at ¶ 5.
In support of this argument, Harris attached to his petition (1) a signed and notarized personal evidentiary affidavit, (2) an unsigned “affidavit” drafted by Harris for a witness named “Nicole,” and (3) an unsigned “affidavit” drafted by Harris for a witness named “A.H.” Harris averred that he had questioned his counsel regarding his decision to rest on the last day of trial without their testimony, to which counsel informed him that he had made the decision because both witnesses had missed their flights.
The trial court summarily dismissed the petition in March of 2017, ruling that appellant had failed to attach the necessary supporting material or sufficiently explain why failure to request a continuance amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel. The trial court also found that even if it had considered the summary of the alleged testimony from both witnesses, counsel’s failure to seek a continuance was not arguably deficient, as the testimony would have been inadmissible as hearsay and irrelevant. Id. at ¶ 6. This appeal followed.
On appeal, the Appellate Court reviewed the first-stage dismissal of appellant’s postconviction petition de novo. The court held that despite the “low threshold” for petitions to survive the first stage of postconviction proceedings, Harris was not excused from “providing factual support for his claims… [and] must supply sufficient factual basis to show the allegations in the petition are capable of objective or independent corroboration.” Id. at ¶ 11.
The court indicated that the attached affidavits, records or other evidence included with a postconviction petition exist to establish such support and must (1) show the petitions are capable of corroboration and (2) identify the sources, character, and availability of evidence alleged to support the petition’s allegations. Id. at ¶ 12. The court looked to the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling that failure to attach the necessary supporting material or explain its absence is “fatal” to a post-conviction petition and alone “justifies the petition’s summary dismissal.” Id. at ¶ 13.
The court disagreed with Harris’ assertion that the personal evidentiary affidavit attached to his postconviction petition adequately supported the assertions made about witness testimony. The court ruled that the affidavit did not demonstrate that the allegation was capable of objective or independent corroboration, nor did it identify the availability of evidence alleged to support the allegation. Id. at ¶ 14.
Harris, in response, relied upon a ruling in People v. Washington, 38 Ill. 2d 446, 449 (1967) to argue that his imprisonment excused his failure to attach such evidence. However, the court found that the court’s decision in Washington was not made on the grounds of the defendant’s failure to present such evidence (as the court found the State had forfeited their argument by failing to raise it before the trial court), and, problematically for Harris, had arrived at a conclusion that did not support the proposition that imprisonment, by itself, could excuse a defendant’s failure to attach supporting material to a post-conviction petition. Id. at ¶ 17.
As such, the court held that imprisonment cannot excuse an appellant’s failure to attach supporting material to a post-conviction petition, as holding otherwise would make the requirement to include such materials “meaningless.” Id. at ¶ 19. Further, the appellate court determined that Harris did not describe any efforts made to obtain signatures for the affidavits he submitted (unsigned), nor did he describe any circumstances, other than imprisonment, that may have prevented him from obtaining those signatures. Id. at ¶ 20.
Because appellant Harris failed to attach the necessary supporting material or provide a reasonable explanation for its absence, the Appellate Court of Illinois Fourth District found the summary dismissal of appellant’s postconviction petition by the Circuit Court of Logan County to be proper and affirmed the court’s judgement. Id. at ¶ 20-23.