Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Illinois
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Webster, 17 years old, fatally shot 15-year-old Gutierrez with a sawed-off shotgun while in the garage behind Webster’s home. Gutierrez sustained a wound to his hand, consistent with his arm having been in a defensive position, and two shotgun wounds to his face. Webster hid the shotgun, dragged Gutierrez’s body down the alley, and tried to clean the crime scene, depositing bloodstained items in neighboring garbage receptacles. In a video-recorded interview at the police station, Webster initially said that no one had been at his house that day and he had last seen Gutierrez about a month earlier. Eventually, Webster admitted that he shot Gutierrez, claiming that Gutierrez pulled out a shotgun, pointed it at Webster, and pulled one of the hammers and that Webster grabbed the shotgun from Gutierrez, “blacked out,” and shot Gutierrez twice to “finish him off.”Webster was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a term of 40 years. The appellate court vacated the sentence and remanded for a new sentencing hearing. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed, reinstating the sentence. Absent a finding of error or abuse of discretion, the appellate court is without authority under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 615(b) to vacate a defendant’s sentence and remand for resentencing. The 40-year sentence is within statutory sentencing limits and is presumed proper. View "People v. Webster" on Justia Law

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Brusaw was charged with aggravated DUI and aggravated driving while his license was revoked. The case was assigned to Judge Jones. A pretrial hearing was set for October 25, 2017. On October 5, Brusaw filed a pro se motion for substitution of Judge Jones under 725 ILCS 5/114-5(a), which gives a defendant the right to an “automatic” substitution of a judge upon the timely filing of a proper written motion containing a good-faith allegation that the judge is prejudiced. After two continuances and at least one pretrial appearance, neither Brusaw nor his attorney brought the motion to Judge Jones’s attention. The judge never entered a ruling on the motion. None of the three posttrial motions mentioned the motion for substitution of judge. Judge Jones sentenced Brusaw to a nine-year prison term. Brusaw spoke at sentencing but did not mention the substitution motion.The appellate court reversed his convictions, reasoning that the “plain language of section 114-5(a)” establishes that a motion for substitution brought under that provision “is not subject to the common abandonment principle.” The Illinois Supreme Court reinstated the convictions but vacated the sentence on other grounds. The common law waiver rule applies. Brusaw and his attorney had multiple opportunities to bring the motion to the court’s attention yet never did so. View "People v. Brusaw" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Agee strangled his girlfriend, Davis, during a physical altercation. He went directly to the police station and voluntarily made a statement, which was recorded on video. Agee did not realize that Davis had died and expressed concerns that she would be okay. Agee pled guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years.Agee filed a pro se post-conviction petition, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to seek an expert to testify as to his mental health. Postconviction counsel was appointed and filed an amended petition adding a claim that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to advise Agee that he could pursue a second-degree defense murder at trial. The court dismissed the amended petition. Agee appealed, arguing that postconviction counsel erroneously failed to allege all the elements of a second-degree murder claim. The appellate court affirmed, reasoning that Rule 651(c), requiring reasonable assistance of postconviction counsel, does not require “any level of representation in the presentation of new claims.”The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed. The appellate court erred in finding that Rule 651(c) does not require any level of representation in the presentation of added claims in an amended pro se postconviction petition but Agee failed to demonstrate that postconviction counsel failed to make amendments to the pro se petition as necessary for an adequate presentation of his claims. He cannot show deficient performance. The record rebuts Agee’s claims about a second-degree murder defense. View "People v. Agee" on Justia Law

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Roland, filed a pro se postconviction petition alleging he received ineffective assistance of counsel during his bench trial for a 2002 attempted murder when his attorney failed to present evidence of his mental health history. After a pre-trial evaluation, Roland had been found fit to stand trial. The expert determined he was legally sane at the time of the offense but that he may have been experiencing symptoms of a depressive mood disorder that was likely exacerbated by alcohol and illegal substances. At trial, Roland testified to having attempted suicide in jail and that he fired a gun while being chased by police because he had wanted police to shoot and kill him.After the petition was advanced to the second stage of proceedings, it was dismissed. The appellate court reversed and remanded for a third-stage evidentiary hearing. The Illinois Supreme Court reinstated the dismissal. It is not reasonably likely that further evidence of Roland’s mental health history would have changed the trial court’s determination that Roland’s conduct during the shooting did not demonstrate that he wanted to commit suicide by police; the court noted that he fled from the police, taking evasive measures to avoid being shot. Roland’s postconviction petition failed to satisfy the prejudice prong of “Strickland.” View "People v. Roland" on Justia Law

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Hilliard was tried for attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm following the 2013 shooting of Killingsworth, who sustained two gunshot wounds in an unprovoked attack. The court removed Hilliard from the courtroom after he threatened people and became belligerent. He could hear the proceedings in lockup and declined to return to the courtroom. Post-conviction, the court ordered a fitness examination. Hilliard refused to cooperate. The expert found no objective evidence that Hilliard had a major mental illness or cognitive impairment. Hilliard declined to answer questions in the preparation of his PSI, which stated that Hilliard had no relationship with his father, had not attended high school, and self-reported mental illness. Hilliard described his childhood as normal, denying any history of family abuse, substance abuse, or gang affiliation. Hilliard had no criminal history.The court merged the charge and imposed a 15-year sentence; for personally discharging a firearm that proximately caused bodily harm, the court imposed the 25-year minimum. The appellate court rejected Hilliard’s argument that the mandatory 25-year enhancement was unconstitutionally disproportionate as applied and that the 40-year sentence was excessive in light of his age and absent any prior criminal activity.In 2019, the court summarily dismissed Hilliard's postconviction petition on the basis that Hilliard was not a juvenile at the time of the shooting and did not receive the harshest penalty possible. The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court affirmed. Hilliard has no viable claim arising from cases providing heightened protection in juvenile sentencing under the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. His challenge under the Illinois Constitution's proportionate penalties clause was frivolous when his claims about his social history were compared to the nature of his crime. View "People v. Hilliard" on Justia Law

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In 2001, Wells and her husband were charged with three counts of first-degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9- 1(a)(1), (2), (3)) and concealment of a homicidal death (9-3.1(a)) for allegedly murdering Weyrick and burying his body in their backyard. Wells entered into a fully negotiated plea agreement and agreed to plead guilty to one count of first-degree murder and testify truthfully at her husband’s trial in exchange for a sentence of 40 years’ imprisonment and the dismissal of the remaining charges.More than 16 years later, she petitioned for a reduced sentence (735 ILCS 5/2-1401(b-5)). The Peoria County circuit court found subsection (b-5) inapplicable because Wells had a negotiated plea deal, found her petition untimely, and dismissed it without holding a hearing. The appellate court held that Wells was not provided with an opportunity to respond to the state’s motion to dismiss and vacated the dismissal order without addressing the merits. The Illinois Supreme Court reinstated the dismissal. Any error in depriving Wells of an opportunity to respond to the dismissal motion was harmless as a matter of law because subsection (b-5) does not apply to a person who is sentenced pursuant to a fully negotiated plea agreement. View "People v. Wells" on Justia Law

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Lighthart had dated both Buchanan and the victim, who was known to have access to large amounts of money. Lighthart drove the victim to a residence, knowing that Buchanan was there intending to rob the victim. Buchanan beat the victim, demanding money, and eventually shot him to death. Lighthart then injected the victim with a solution that contained Drano or attempted to do so. After cleaning the scene, they disposed of the body by setting it on fire inside the victim’s Jeep in a rural field. In 2004, Lighthart, then 23, entered a partially negotiated plea of guilty to first-degree murder, in exchange for the dismissal of other charges and a sentencing cap of 35 years. Lighthart filed a motion to reduce her 35-year sentence and, subsequently, an untimely pro se motion to withdraw her plea, asserting that she was the victim of domestic violence and ineffective assistance of counsel. After an 11-½ year delay following remand and changes in counsel, the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of her 725 ILCS 5/122-1 post-conviction petition as untimely.The Illinois Supreme Court reversed. An ineffective notice of appeal from a negotiated guilty plea, which is dismissed for lack of appellate jurisdiction due to failure to follow procedural requirements (Illinois Supreme Court Rule 604(d)) triggers a six-month limitations period for bringing a postconviction petition. However, under the circumstances, Lighthart could not have been culpably negligent in the untimely filing of her petition. View "People v. Lighthart" on Justia Law

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June agreed to watch her sister Jwonda’s children so that Jwonda could visit her friend, Natasha Johnson. Jwonda’s boyfriend, Lane, drove her and her children to June’s apartment, but they argued. Jwonda did not meet Johnson as planned. When Johnson called Jwonda, she heard Lane yelling at her. Johnson went to June’s apartment and left about an hour later. She notified the police about the domestic disturbance. Officers went to June’s apartment. Jwonda and Lane started to leave by the back door. A gun in Lane’s hand discharged, killing Jwonda. Jwonda was pregnant. Her fetus died with her.Lane testified that the gun discharged accidentally. June and Johnson testified that Lane had the gun in his hand as he yelled at Jwonda that she must not leave with Johnson and that Lane threatened to kill Jwonda. The court found Lane guilty of first-degree murder and intentional homicide of an unborn child and held that 720 ILCS 5-8-1(a)(1)(c)(ii) mandated a sentence of natural life in prison because Lane had murdered more than one victim. The appellate court affirmed.The Illinois Supreme Court vacated the sentence. Section 5-8-1(a)(1)(c)(ii) does not apply because the trial court found Lane guilty of only one murder. The sentencing provisions do not change the classification of the offense with which a defendant has been charged and convicted. Intentional homicide of an unborn child is not murder. It is a separate offense with a separate definition. View "People v. Lane" on Justia Law

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In 2012, Givens, Dudley, and Strong burglarized a store and attempted to escape by backing a van out of a closed garage door, striking a police officer. Chicago police officers fired their weapons at the van, resulting in Strong’s death and injuries to Dudley and Givens, who were convicted of felony murder, aggravated battery to a peace officer, and possession of a stolen motor vehicle.Dudley, Givens, and Strong’s estate sued the City, alleging the use of excessive force. With respect to Dudley and Givens, the circuit court granted Chicago summary judgment based on the collateral estoppel effect of their prior criminal proceedings. The estate’s lawsuit resulted in a partial verdict for the estate. The circuit court granted Chicago’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) based on the jury’s answers to special interrogatories. The appellate court reversed, holding that collateral estoppel did not bar Dudley and Givens from litigating their claims and the circuit court erred in vacating the verdict.The Illinois Supreme Court agreed that collateral estoppel did not bar the suit by Dudley and Givens. Chicago did not establish with “clarity and certainty” that the identical question was decided in the earlier proceeding The court reinstated the JNOV. The circuit court properly held that the jury’s special finding related to an ultimate issue of fact upon which the rights of the parties depended and was clearly and absolutely irreconcilable with the verdict returned. View "Givens v. City of Chicago" on Justia Law

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Pacheco was convicted of aggravated assault and other offenses after he tried to hit a Joliet police officer with his car. During the incident, the officer shot and injured Pacheco. The appellate court reversed, finding that the trial court violated Pacheco’s right to confrontation by prohibiting defense counsel from cross-examining the officer who shot Pacheco as to whether the officer believed he could lose his job if the shooting was found to be unjustified and finding the trial court erred in granting the prosecution’s motion in limine to bar defense counsel from asking the officer and his partner why they did not write police reports regarding the incident.The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and remanded. The limitation imposed on the officer’s cross-examination was necessary to avoid a highly prejudicial outcome to Pacheco–the admission of testimony that a review panel had found the shooting to be justified. Cross-examination was not otherwise limited. Because of department policy, the officers had no choice about writing reports and their failure to do so was irrelevant to any question of bias or credibility. The question would have distracted the jury from the question of determining the guilt or innocence of Pacheco. View "People v. Pacheco" on Justia Law