Trial court properly granted Kuehner motion where post-conviction counsel provided evidence that claims were frivolous

The appellant in People v. Fathauer, 2019 IL App (4th) 180241 appealed the trial court’s order dismissing his post-conviction petition on grounds that the court erred by granting post-conviction counsel’s motion to withdraw in light of a stated claim for ineffective assistance of counsel and post-conviction counsel’s failure to amend his pro se petition. The Fourth District Appellate Court affirmed.

Fathauer was originally convicted of participation in methamphetamine manufacturing and obstruction of justice, and sentenced to concurrent terms of 20 years and 3 years imprisonment. Id. at ¶ 1. On direct appeal, both his conviction and sentence were affirmed by the appellate court. Shortly thereafter, Fathauer filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging four grounds for relief, including ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Id. at ¶ 2. The trial court appointed appellate counsel, who subsequently filed a motion to withdraw, citing People v. Kuehner, 2015 IL 117695, and arguing that each of the pro se claims were frivolous and patently without merit. Id. at ¶ 3. Counsel’s motion was initially granted by the court, and Fathauer’s appearl was dismissed for want of a final order. Id. at ¶ 4. On remand, the trial court granted the State’s motion to dismiss. This appeal followed.

Fathauer argued on appeal that the trial court erred by granting post-conviction counsel’s motion to withdraw because the petition stated a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel and because post-conviction counsel rendered unreasonable assistance by failing to amend the pro se petition. Id. at ¶ 5. As to the ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim, Fathauer alleged that counsel failed to scientifically test spots on his clothing and point out inconsistencies in trial testimony, and that such a lack of pre-trial investigation by his counsel “deprived him of a potential defense” that would have prevented his conviction at trial. Id. at ¶ 27. The State responded to his petition with a motion to dismiss, arguing that appellant’s claims were barred by res judicata, insufficiently pled, and unsupported by the record. Id. at ¶ 29.

In response to Fathauer’s claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, post-conviction counsel, in his motion to withdraw under Kuehner, asserted that “there is no evidence from the record to support” the claims made by Fathauer and that Fathauer had “not demonstrated deficient performance by trial counsel that caused him prejudice.” Id. at ¶ 32. Postconviction counsel also expressed his concurrence with the State that the issue of false testimony had been argued and rejected on direct appeal and was therefore barred by res judicata. As to the Kuehner issue, Fathauer argued that post-conviction counsel should not have been permitted to withdraw because his petition stated the gist of a constitutional claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

The appellate court noted that Kuehner requires a two-step analysis. First, the court must determine whether the trial court advanced the petition to the second stage of postconviction proceedings on its merits, based upon its conclusion that the petition stated the gist of a constitutional claim. Second, the court must evaluate whether counsel provided “at least some explanation as to why, despite its superficial virtue, the pro se petition was in fact frivolous or patently without merit” with respect to each claim. Id. at ¶ 47. On the first requirement, the court held that the appointment of counsel was a sufficient and satisfactory action. Id. at ¶ 48. On the second requirement, the court held that it must address whether postconviction counsel (1) provided some information that was not apparent on the face of the petition that (2) demonstrated that each of defendant’s pro se claims were in fact frivolous and patently without merit. Id. at ¶ 50.

To that end, the court held that when post-conviction counsel provided the trial court with the full transcript of the witness’ testimony and the court’s decision on direct appeal, counsel was calling the court’s attention to information not apparent on the face of the petition and met Kuehner’s requirement. Id. at ¶ 52. Moreover, the court held that if counsel determines that appellant’s claims are barred by res judicata or are contradicted by the record, counsel has an ethical obligation to move to withdraw if he reasonably believes that the trial court erred when it found the petition had merit at first glance. Id. at ¶ 58. The court found further that post-conviction counsel had properly explained why each of the claims within the post-conviction petition were frivolous and patently without merit. Id. at ¶ 64. Thus, the court held that counsel’s motion to withdraw was proper under Kuehner.

Finally, as to Fathauer’s assertion of unreasonable assistance of post-conviction counsel for failing to amend his pro se petition, the court held that appellant’s claims were contradicted by the record, and that, because counsel is not required to advance frivolous claims, could not amount to unreasonable assistance. Id at ¶ 68. The Appellate Court affirmed.

Appellate Court remands for Krankel hearing where defendant makes ineffective assistance claims to Probation during PSI interview

The appellant in People v. Downing, 2019 IL App (1st) 170329 appealed the trial court’s decision denying a request made by the State for a Krankel inquiry into alleged ineffective assistance of Downing’s trial counsel. The First District held that, despite an initial answer to the contrary, a Krankel inquiry was necessitated in this case, reversing the judgment of the circuit court, and remanding for Krankel proceedings. Id. at ¶ 4.

Downing was found guilty of possession of cannabis with intent to deliver. During his pre-sentence investigation interview, Downing complained of his trial counsel’s performance, which complaints were evidenced in the pre-sentence investigation report (PSI). These complaints included allegations that counsel requested to call three witnesses at trial, who were never called; requested new counsel, which was never provided; was denied a request testify on his own behalf; allowed the police to make false statements at trial; failed to raise issues regarding the arresting officers’ failure to read him his Miranda rights; and failed to challenge inaccuracies in the police report. Id at ¶ 10.

At sentencing, the State argued in aggravation that the complaints detailed in the PSI were evidence of Downing’s lack of remorse. Id. at ¶ 11. However, neither at sentencing nor in any other communication with the court did Downing repeat his complaints about his counsel. Downing was subsequently sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Id. at ¶ 12. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Downing argued that the trial court was required to conduct a Krankel inquiry into the allegations of attorney incompetence expressed to the probation department during his PSI interview. Id. at ¶ 15. At the outset, the court acknowledged “there is no dispute that at least some of these allegations sufficed, in terms of their content, to raise a pro se post-trial claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id. at ¶ 17. However, the court noted its decision ought not be predicated on the content of the claims, but the manner in which they were received by the trial court, and by whom they were delivered. Id. at ¶ 18. As a result, the court held that the question they must evaluate was whether allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel, attributed to the defendant but presented to the trial court in open court by someone other than the defendant, require the court to conduct a Krankel inquiry. Id. at ¶ 18.

The court held that it should not make “a difference that the issue [of ineffective assistance of counsel] was raised by the State.” Id. at ¶ 21. As a result, the court concluded that it was a logical extension of existing precedent (Jackson) to hold that, because the State emphasized in open court that defendant had complained about his trial representation and specifically directed the trial court to the page of the PSI in which those complaints appeared, the trial court had a duty under Krankel to conduct an inquiry into the substance of these claims. Id. at ¶ 22. The court further held that more recent case law (Harris) supported such a holding in this case. Id. at ¶ 23.

As a result, the First District remanded this case to the trial court for a preliminary Krankel inquiry, which is designed to determine whether defendant wishes to pursue his allegations in a Krankel proceeding. Id. at ¶ 71. In the event defendant wishes to pursue them, the trial court is instructed to determine whether the allegations reveal possible neglect of the case by counsel. Id. at ¶ 72.

Petitioner unable to show cause and prejudice for successive petition where he had raised a re-sentencing claim before

The appellant in People v. Morrow, 2019 IL App (1st) 161208, appealed the decision of the trial court denying him leave to file a successive post-conviction petition on grounds that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to ask the court to remand for re-sentencing following the vacation of his armed robbery conviction. The appellate court ultimately affirmed the trial court’s order.

Morrow was convicted of murder and armed robbery after a jury trial and sentenced to concurrent terms of 60 years imprisonment for murder and 20 years for armed robbery. On direct appeal, the appellate court affirmed appellant’s murder conviction and sentence but vacated his armed robbery conviction and sentence; finding that the State had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant had any intent to rob the victim. Id. at ¶ 18.

Morrow then filed a post-conviction petition, which was dismissed by the court as frivolous and patently without merit. Id at ¶ 19. Morrow appealed, and the trial court’s decision was affirmed. Following unsuccessful filings of a pro se habeas corpus petition, a pro se petition for relief from judgement pursuant to section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure, multiple motions for leave to file a successive petition, Morrow filed a third motion for leave to file a successive petition, which was the subject of this appeal. Id. at ¶ ¶ 33-37.

The third motion argued that the appellate court erred and that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to ask the appellate court to remand for re-sentencing when it vacated his armed robbery conviction. Id. at ¶ 38. Further, the motion argued that Morrow’s post-conviction counsel was ineffective for failing to raise these claims before and that his sentence was excessive in light of his criminal history of misdemeanor offenses. Id. at ¶ 38. The trial court found that appellant had failed to establish either cause or prejudice and denied him leave to file the petition. Id. at ¶ 40. This appeal followed.

The court noted that in order to determine whether a successive petition can even be filed, the trial court must first determine whether the petition “(1) states a colorable claim of actual innocence or (2) establishes cause and prejudice.” Id. at ¶ 47. As Morrow exclusively allied cause and prejudice, that is the basis under which the court considered the claim. The court noted that “(u)nder the cause-and-prejudice test, a defendant must establish both (1) cause for his or her failure to raise the claim earlier and (2) prejudice stemming from his or her failure to do so.” The court noted that as “both prongs of the cause and prejudice test must be satisfied, we may uphold the denial of leave to file a claim if defendant has failed to establish either prong.” Id. at ¶¶ 55-57.

The appellate court rejected Morrow’s arguments because it determined that there was no evidence that the trial court was ever influenced by the armed robbery conviction or that appellate counsel’s alleged failure to raise the claim resulted in prejudice. Id. at ¶ 70. In support of this conclusion, the court pointed to statements in the record indicating that the trial court’s determination that the precipitating factor in the murder was defendant’s desire to protect his prostitutes, rather than a desire to rob the victim. Id. at ¶ 69.

The court also could not find cause excusing the failure to raise the claim earlier. Id. at ¶ 72. The court noted that appellate counsel did not seek a remand for re-sentencing, but also noted that Morrow could not possibly establish cause, as he had in fact raised the issue of re-sentencing in an earlier claim. Id. at ¶ 74. The court rejected subsequent arguments made by appellant that he could not have raised those claims earlier, as it would have required him to request his defense lawyer to argue his own ineffectiveness. Id. at ¶ 80.

Having found Morrow unable to establish cause and prejudice, and appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order denying Morrow leave to file a successive petition.

 

 

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.

 

 

Appellate court reverses trial court’s denial of successive petition where defendant shows that trial counsel did not communicate plea offer to him

The appellant in People v. Ryburn, 2019 ILL App (4th) 170779, appealed the trial court’s decision dismissing his successive post-conviction petition at the second stage of proceedings. The Fourth District ultimately reversed the dismissal of the petition and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Ryburn was originally charged with four counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, four counts of criminal sexual assault, and four counts of aggravate criminal sexual abuse for his actions on September 8, 1998. Ryburn pled guilty to three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, pursuant to a plea agreement, in exchange for the State’s dismissal of the remaining nine counts and other unrelated charges, recommendation of an aggregate sentence totaling no more than 60 years, and imposition of no fines. Id. at ¶ 4. Ryburn was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for each of the three counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, to be served consecutively. Id. at ¶ 5.

Shortly following sentencing, in December of 1999, Ryburn filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging he did not enter it knowingly and voluntarily. The post-plea motion was denied by the trial court. Id. at ¶ 5. On direct appeal, Ryburn’s convictions and aggregate 60-year sentence were affirmed, despite arguments by appellant that his sentence was unconstitutional. Id. at ¶ 6. In June 2002, Ryburn filed a pro se petition for relief under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act, alleging he received ineffective assistance of counsel for the public defender’s failure to (a) raise a speedy trial claim, (b) call certain alibi witnesses, (c) present evidence to corroborate the alibi, (d) obtain police records to show the victim had a motive to fabricate her complaint, and (e) to decide to hold appellant fit to plead guilty.

Ryburn also alleged ineffective assistance of his appellate counsel for failing to raise the aforementioned issues on appeal. Id. at ¶ 7. The circuit court summarily dismissed the petition as frivolous and patently without merit, which was affirmed upon appeal. In July 2004, Ryburn once again unsuccessfully petitioned the court to set aside the guilty pleas for various claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and violation of supreme court rules. Id. at ¶ 8.

Between 2011 and 2015, Ryburn filed four motions for leave to file a successive post-conviction petitions; the first three were initially denied by the circuit court, then appealed, and dismissed upon appellant’s own motions. Id. at ¶ 10-12. The motions contained claims of actual innocence via involuntary intoxication, a breach of the plea agreement related to the mandatory three-year supervisory release term and claims that forensic evidence did not support the second and third counts of his indictment.

Ryburn’s fourth motion for leave, which was allowed by the court, alleged that the State had tendered a plea offer of 24 years’ imprisonment to the public defender’s office that was never conveyed to him, resulting in 36 more years in prison. Id. at ¶ 13. The petition proceeded through the first stage of postconviction proceedings to the second. At the second stage of proceedings, appointed counsel filed an amended post-conviction petition detailing the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel related to the failure to inform Ryburn of the plea offer and the failure of previous appellate counsel to raise the claim on appeal. Id. at ¶ 14. The court dismissed the amended post-conviction petition, claiming that Ryburn failed to show any objective factor that impeded his ability to raise his claim during the initial or subsequent post-conviction proceedings. Id. at ¶ 15. This appeal followed.

The appellate court determined the circuit court’s focus at the second stage of postconviction proceedings should be determining whether the petition’s allegations sufficiently show a constitutional infirmity that would necessitate relief under the Act. Id. at ¶ 22. The dismissal of a petition at the second stage of proceedings is only warranted when the allegations in the petition fail to make a substantial showing of a constitutional violation. Id at ¶ 22.

The appellate court disagreed with and rejected the State’s argument that the word “trial” in the definition of prejudice precludes a defendant who pleaded guilty from filing a successive post-conviction petition, on the grounds that both legislative intent and state supreme court rulings had indicated as much. Id. at ¶ 28. On appeal, Ryburn contended that his amended successive post-conviction petition made a substantial showing of both cause and prejudice, which was not challenged by the State. As such, the appellate court’s review of the substantiality of the petition’s cause and prejudice showings were conducted individually.

On cause, the court held that cause is shown by identifying an objective factor that impeded his or her ability to raise a specific claim during his or her initial post-conviction proceedings. Id. at ¶ 32. The court held that Ryburn’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims related to the plea offer made by the State in 1998, of which he was never informed by counsel or the State, was an objective, external factor that prevented appellant from raising the issue in the initial post-conviction petition. Id. at ¶ 34-36. The appellate court concluded that appellant did make a substantial showing of cause in this case.

On prejudice, the court held that prejudice is shown by “demonstrating that the claim not raised during his or her initial post-conviction proceedings so infected the trial that the resulting conviction or sentence violated due process.” Id. at ¶ 38. To this end, Ryburn alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to inform him of the 1998 plea offer from the State.

Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are analyzed under the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Id. at ¶ 39. To obtain a reversal under Strickland, an appellant must prove (1) his counsel’s performance failed to meet an objective standard of competence and (2) counsel’s deficient performance resulted in prejudice to the defendant.

The appellate court concluded that because the United States Supreme Court has previously held that defense counsel has a duty to communicate formal offers from the prosecution to defendants (as required by the sixth amendment) and Ryburn provided sufficient evidence of defense counsel’s failure to inform him of the State’s plea offer, he made a substantial showing of the deficiency prong of the Strickland test. Id. at ¶ 41. The appellate court further determined that Ryburn’s petition made a substantial showing of all four elements of the prejudice prong of the Strickland test by demonstrating a reasonable probability that (1) he would have accepted the plea offer but for counsel’s deficient advice, (2) the plea would have been entered without the State canceling it, (3) the circuit court would have accepted the plea bargain, and (4) “the end result of the criminal process would have been more favorable by reason of a plea to a lesser charge or a sentence of less prison time.” Id. at ¶ 42.

Ultimately, the appellate court concluded that Ryburn made a substantial showing of both cause and prejudice and agreed with him that the circuit court erred by granting the State’s motion to dismiss. Id. at ¶ 43. As a result, the Fourth District held that Ryburn’s successive post-conviction petition should advance to the third stage of proceedings for an evidentiary hearing and reversed the decision of the trial court dismissing his petition.