Illinois Supreme Court Reverses 15-Year Old Convictions in Double Murder Trial of a Juvenile

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The Illinois Supreme Court reversed a juvenile's 15-year old first and second degree murder convictions and remanded the case for a new trial in a unanimous opinion.

Illinois Supreme Court Argument

[t]he constitutional guaranty that an accused shall have the assistance of counsel is not a barren right but one of inestimable value to him, and he should not be deprived of it by compelling counsel to go to trial unprepared and without an opportunity of studying the case.

On January 20, 1994, sixteen-year-old Terrance Walker appeared in court for his double murder trial only to learn that his court appointed attorney failed to prepare to represent him. The trial judge, Judge Morrissey, refused counsel's repeated requests to continue the case, deeming counsel's lack of preparedness "irrelevant," and a "dirty shame." The trial that followed lasted less than half an hour. Defense counsel failed to present an opening statement, failed to raise a single objection, and asked only 16 questions on cross-examination. Defense counsel failed to move for a directed verdict, bolstered the prosecution's case by eliciting damaging evidence from a State's witness, and failed to ask for a ruling on a motion to suppress statements that was at the heart of the State's case. Judge Morrissey found Terrance guilty on one count of first degree and one count of second-degree murder, and sentenced the juvenile to 60 years in prison. Defense counsel failed to file a motion for a new trial, or a notice of appeal.

Twelve years later, attorney Robert M. Stephenson, of Oak Park, Illinois, learned of the case, and agreed to represent Terrance pro-bono. At the time, no court in Illinois had jurisdiction to hear substantive arguments concerning the convictions. Mr. Stephenson filed a Motion for Supervisory Order in the Illinois Supreme Court asking the court to remand the case to the circuit court for proper admonishments concerning the right to appeal, and to allow Terrance to file an appeal. The Illinois Supreme Court granted that order.

On appeal, in the Illinois First District Court of Appeals in Chicago, Illinois, Attorney Stephenson raised two issues on Terrance's behalf. First, that the trial judge abused his discretion in failing to give defense counsel a short continuance. Second, that defense counsel, based on her admitted failure to prepare, failed to provide Terrance with the type of representation envisioned by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The appellate court, without hearing argument and in an unpublished order, affirmed Terrance's convictions.

Attorney Stephenson filed a Petition for Leave to Appeal in the Illinois Supreme Court. The Illinois Supreme Court granted the petition. All of the briefs in the case, as well as a video of the oral argument, may be found at RM Stephenson, LLC.

On January 23, 2009, the Illinois Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Freeman, reversed Terrance's convictions, and remanded the case to the Circuit court of Cook County for a new trial. (Docket No. 105437) The Illinois Supreme Court found that Judge Morrissey evinced an openly hostile attitude toward defense counsel," that had no basis in the record. The Court could not "condone that whatever displeasure the court had with defendant's counsel-or with defense counsel in general-was visited upon defendant. It must be remembered that "[t]he constitutional guaranty that an accused shall have the assistance of counsel is not a barren right but one of inestimable value to him, and he should not be deprived of it by compelling counsel to go to trial unprepared and without an opportunity of studying the case." People v. Blumenfeld, 330 Ill. 474, 489 (1928)."

The Illinois Supreme Court took the opportunity to "remind (the) bench and bar that at issue in a request for a continuance in a criminal trial is not only a circuit court's discretion as to whether to grant that request, but also a defendant's constitutional right to a fair, procedurally sound trial, which necessitates the making of a sufficient record to establish that a defendant has been afforded a fair process." The court found the conclusion "inescapable that under the specific facts here, the circuit court completely abdicated its responsibility to conduct an informed deliberation of defense counsel's motion and, instead, immediately and reflexively denied the continuance request on the sole basis that the case had been set for trial."

The Illinois Supreme Court held that "the unique facts presented in the instant matter unquestionably support the conclusion that, in abdicating its duty to exercise discretion in ruling upon defense counsel's request for continuance, the circuit court committed error. Judge Morrissey's error "was so serious as to affect the fairness of defendant's trial and challenged the integrity of the judicial process...."

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