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United States v. Fransen

decided: January 13, 1982.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 79-C-5181-George N. Leighton, Judge.

Before Pell, Circuit Judge, Fairchild, Senior Circuit Judge, and Cudahy, Circuit Judge.

Author: Fairchild

Petitioner Ross sought a writ of habeas corpus from the district court, alleging that the state trial court had abridged his constitutional rights by refusing to include a plain "not guilty" form among the verdict forms given to the jury. The district court dismissed the petition, finding presumptively correct under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), and unrebutted, certain findings of the state appellate court. We conclude that the district court erred in deferring to those rulings and find no justification in the record for the state trial court's failure to submit the not guilty verdict form. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment appealed from and remand the case with directions to order release of petitioner unless he is again brought to trial within the period defined in this opinion.

Factual Background

The evidence giving rise to the state court conviction is detailed in the opinion of the Appellate Court of Illinois, People v. Ross, 63 Ill.App.3d 884, 20 Ill.Dec. 688, 380 N.E.2d 897 (1978), and we need only briefly summarize it here. The first prosecution witness, the victim's son, testified that on March 10, 1975, he discovered his mother's body in their apartment lying in a bathtub full of bloody water. She had apparently been beaten and stabbed several times. He told the jury that he summoned the police. He also said that his mother and petitioner Ross, whom she had known for several years, had frequently had coffee in the apartment together. The police chief then testified that he inspected the scene and, after conferring with neighbors, proceeded to locate Ross. He placed the petitioner under arrest and recovered a paper bag filled with damp clothes. According to the police chief, Ross was advised of his constitutional rights, taken to the place of the crime, then transported to the station house. After again being given Miranda warnings and signing a form indicating he understood them, Ross was interrogated by the police. Initially he made several conflicting statements, then was permitted to talk privately with his pastor and with his girlfriend. The police chief said that following further questioning the petitioner confessed to the murder. He also testified that he had personally known Ross for "quite some time" and that, in his opinion, Ross was able to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law on the day in question. Another witness, a pathologist, testified as to the nature of the injuries and the cause of the victim's death. Then the Assistant State's Attorney who had taken the confession was called by the prosecution to read it into evidence, which he did without objection by the defense. He further said that as a result of his conversations with Ross, he was of the opinion that petitioner was able to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. At the close of the state's case, a defense motion for a directed verdict was denied.

Ross did not take the stand in his own behalf, but instead called several witnesses, including his mother, his girlfriend, three psychologists, and one psychiatrist. The testimony of each was essentially directed toward establishing that Ross suffered from mental illness.

At the close of the evidence, a conference on instructions was held in the judge's chambers. The state submitted four verdict forms to be given to the jury: (1) guilty; (2) not guilty; (3) not guilty by reason of insanity and in need of further mental treatment; and (4) not guilty by reason of insanity and not in need of further mental treatment. The following colloquy then ensued:

Court: "... Let's go over the verdicts now ... They brought up four verdicts, one for plain not guilty. I don't think you even want that in there, do you?"

Defense Counsel: "Yes, your Honor."

Court: "So he can walk out on the street without going to the hospital? Three verdicts will be given. No objections...."*fn1

The simple not guilty form was eliminated and the other three forms were given to the jury with the instruction that:

"When you have unanimously agreed upon your verdict you will select the form which reflects your verdict and sign it as I have stated."*fn2

A verdict of guilty of murder was subsequently returned. Ross was sentenced to a prison term of 100-150 years.

State Appellate Court Proceedings

On appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court, petitioner argued, among other points, that the trial court erred in omitting the plain not guilty form from the verdict forms given to the jury. The court noted that the defense had failed properly to object to this matter at trial, but nonetheless proceeded to decide the issue on the merits. It wrote:

"From the opening argument of this case, through the testimony of the prosecution's witnesses, through the reading of the defendant's confession to the jury, through the testimony of the defense witnesses, through the conference on instructions, through the closing arguments, through the pre-trial and post-trial motions and liberal argument thereupon, the question of fact as to whether or not the defendant had committed the acts in question which resulted in the death of the victim was never raised. Counsel for both sides, in effect, stipulated to the fact the defendant had committed the acts in question. The only defense raised by the defendant's very able trial counsel was the issue of the sanity of the defendant at the time of the commission of the acts.... While as a general rule, we could not condone the actions of the trial judge and counsel for the prosecution and defense in omitting a "not guilty' verdict, given the peculiar set of facts presented by this record, we believe the trial judge acted correctly when he only gave the "not guilty by reason of insanity' verdicts."

28 Ill.Dec. at 691, 380 N.E.2d at 901. (Emphasis added.)

Subsequently, the Illinois Supreme Court denied petitioner leave to appeal.

District Court Proceedings

A petition for a writ of habeas corpus was thereafter filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that the trial court's failure to submit the not guilty verdict form deprived the petitioner of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to have a jury determine whether he was guilty of each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court held that on the instant facts there was no constitutional error. It reasoned that the Illinois Appellate Court's finding that "(Ross) never really questioned that he had committed the homicide" was entitled to a presumption of correctness under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) and that petitioner's arguments did not cast doubt on that presumption. The court also "accept(ed) as binding the finding of the state court that petitioner in effect stipulated to the commission of the acts in question," and therefore concluded that the state trial court did not err in submitting only the three forms. Accordingly, the petition was dismissed. This appeal was subsequently taken.

The Merits*fn3


We note at the outset of our analysis that petitioner's failure to make a more formal objection to the alleged error at trial does not bar us from now addressing that issue, since the state appellate court decided the merits of petitioner's constitutional claim notwithstanding lack of preservation. A similar situation was recently before the Supreme Court in Sumner v. Mata, 449 U.S. 539, 101 S. Ct. 764, 66 L. Ed. 2d 722 (1981). There, a constitutional challenge to identification procedures not presented at trial was raised before and decided by the California Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court observed that "if the state appellate court ... had declined to rule on the ... issue because it had not been properly raised in the trial court, the federal court would have been altogether barred from considering it absent a showing of "cause' or "prejudice'." 449 U.S. at 547, 101 S. Ct. at 769. Nonetheless, although the Supreme Court resolved the merits differently from the Court of Appeals, it did not fault the Court of Appeals for considering the merits. Cf. Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 161-162, 98 S. Ct. 2674, 2679-80, 57 L. Ed. 2d 667 (1978) (ruling by state's highest court left question open to federal review).


Petitioner argues, as he did below, that the trial court's action in refusing to tender the not guilty form to the jury and in instructing it to render a verdict consistent with one of the three forms it was given eliminated the possibility of a not guilty verdict and in that manner unconstitutionally directed a verdict against the petitioner. The district court rejected this contention because it found presumptively correct, under § 2254(d), two separate but interrelated "findings" of the state appellate court. The first, as stated in the state court opinion, was that "the question of fact as to whether or not (Ross) had committed the acts ... which resulted in the death of the victim was never raised" at trial, 28 Ill.Dec. at 691, 380 N.E.2d at 901; the second was that "(counsel) for both sides, in effect, stipulated to the fact that the defendant had committed the acts in question," id. We cannot agree with the district court's analysis, as will be shown by our discussion of § 2254(d) and its applicability to each of these state court rulings.

Section 2254(d) provides that "a determination after a hearing on the merits of a factual issue, made by a State court of competent jurisdiction ... (and) evidenced by a ... written opinion ... shall be presumed to be correct" unless the applicant for a federal writ of habeas corpus can establish one of the enumerated causes for exception, among which is a showing that as a whole the state court record does not fairly support the finding of fact. This presumption of correctness applies to factual determinations made at the state appellate level where, as here, a claim not raised at trial has received plenary consideration as part of the formal appeals process. See Sumner, supra, 449 U.S. at 546, 101 S. Ct. at 768-69; see also United States ex rel. Riley v. Franzen, 653 F.2d 1153, 1156 n.7 (7th Cir. 1981) (citing Sumner for same proposition). The two rulings of the Illinois Appellate Court to which the district court deferred do not, however, come within the protective ambit of § 2254(d) because one was not a finding of fact but rather a conclusion of law or mixed determination of law and fact, and the other, to the extent it may be interpreted as a factual finding, is without support in the record.

The term "issues of fact," as used in § 2254(d) "refer(s) to what are termed basic, primary, or historical facts: facts "in the sense of a recital of external events and the credibility of their narrators....' Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 506, 73 S. Ct. 397, 446, 97 L. Ed. 469 (opinion of Mr. Justice Frankfurter). So-called mixed questions of fact and law, which require the application of a legal standard to the historical-fact determinations, are not facts in this sense." Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 309, 83 S. Ct. 745, 755, 9 L. Ed. 2d 770 (1963); see also Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, 403, 97 S. Ct. 1232, 1241-42, 51 L. Ed. 2d 424 (1977); Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U.S. 335, 341-342, 100 S. Ct. 1708, 1714-15, 64 L. Ed. 2d 333 (1980).

Here, the finding that counsel had "in effect" stipulated to the commission of the acts was not an ascertainment of historical fact, nor a recital of actual events, as would have been the case if the court had stated that an express stipulation had been made, or listed the matters stipulated to. Rather, as the appellate court's use of the term "in effect" makes clear, it was an appraisal of the legal consequences of the conduct of the defense at trial. The court was saying, in other words, that the actions of petitioner's counsel were legally equivalent to a stipulation of guilt on all issues save insanity and sufficiently waived petitioner's Sixth Amendment rights to have those elements of the crime proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Plainly, this ruling was a conclusion of law, or at best a mixed determination of law and fact. It represented not a finding of the underlying elemental facts or a resolution of witness credibility, but instead the application of legal standards-e.g., those governing waiver of constitutional rights, see Brookhart v. Janis, 384 U.S. 1, 86 S. Ct. 1245, 16 L. Ed. 2d 314 (1966);*fn4 Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464, 58 S. Ct. 1019, 1023, 82 L. Ed. 1461 (1938)-to the historical facts of the case. See Brewer, supra, 430 U.S. at 395-397, 402-404, 97 S. Ct. at 1237-39, 1241-42 (conclusion that defendant waived his right to counsel not a "factual" determination within the meaning of § 2254(d)); see also Cuyler, supra, 446 U.S. at 342, 100 S. Ct. at 1715 (conclusion that lawyers undertook multiple representation not a "factual" determination within meaning of § 2254(d)); Ruiz v. Cady, 635 F.2d 584, 588-589 (7th Cir. 1980) (whether witness' testimony at trial was consistent with witness' prior testimony at preliminary hearing not a "factual" determination within the meaning of § 2254(d)). Consequently, the state appellate court's finding that there had "in effect" been a stipulation to the doing of the acts does not enjoy a presumption of correctness under § 2254(d) and is open to review on collateral attack via a federal habeas petition.*fn5

As to the other "finding" deferred to by the district court-namely, that "the question of fact as to whether or not (Ross) ... committed the acts ... was never raised" at trial-we find several problems. If this be deemed a finding, cf. Cuyler, supra, 446 U.S. at 341-342, 100 S. Ct. at 1714-15 it clearly was not supported by the record. In the first place, petitioner had pleaded not guilty, thereby raising all possible questions of fact. In the second place, although the defense did not introduce evidence that petitioner had not committed the acts, such failure is by no means a concession, and defense counsel had argued to the jury that the evidence of guilt was insufficient.

We find particularly significant, the closing argument of defense counsel which plainly shows that Ross did not concede commission of the offense but in fact challenged the state's evidence.*fn6 Counsel argued that there was no eyewitness evidence that Ross had been at the scene of the crime,*fn7 that there was no testimony showing that he had washed blood stains out of the damp clothes recovered at the time of the arrest,*fn8 that there was insufficient time for such laundering to have taken place,*fn9 and that in fact the only evidence of Ross' guilt was "really just a confession" which the jury did not have to believe.*fn10 If Ross had conceded the doing of the acts, there would have been no reason to make these arguments which plainly challenged the sufficiency of the state's evidence of the petitioner's guilt. Added to these statements on closing is the fact that counsel had cross-examined the state's witnesses and at one point succeeded in establishing that the victim's son had no recollection of his mother and Ross ever having had a disagreement.*fn11 That admission tended to show that it was unlikely that Ross had reason to perpetrate this violent crime, and presumably was elicited for the purpose of undermining the state's case against the petitioner. So too, it is difficult to understand the defense motion for a directed verdict at the end of the state's evidence as other than a challenge to the evidence of Ross' involvement in the crime, since up to that point in the trial there was no significant evidence tending to establish that Ross was mentally ill.

To be sure, the main thrust of the defense's case was to show that Ross was mentally incompetent and thus could not be found legally responsible for the homicide. That tactic did not preclude the defense from alternatively arguing-as it did-that, in fact, Ross did not commit the crime. While the presentation of this alternative theory was not as robust as the insanity defense there is ample evidence that it was indeed urged,*fn12 and we see no reason to discount that effort. We conclude that the state appellate court's determination that petitioner never questioned at trial the doing of the criminal acts is without support in the record, and therefore hold that the district court clearly erred in deferring to that finding.


The issue still remains, however, as to whether the state trial court abridged Ross' constitutional rights by refusing to give the not guilty form to the jury. Essentially, the question here is whether Ross waived his right to a jury determination of all issues except sanity. Unless he did, there was nothing to relieve that state of its burden to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, see In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S. Ct. 1068, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368 (1970), and even an inadvertent failure to submit the not guilty form to the jury would require a reversal, see Braley v. Gladden, 403 F.2d 858 (9th Cir. 1968);*fn13 Commonwealth v. Edwards, 394 Pa. 335, 147 A.2d 313 (1959);*fn14 but see Krzeminski v. Perini, 614 F.2d 121 (6th Cir. 1980).*fn15

The facts show that there was no express stipulation, orally or in writing, by petitioner or his counsel, conceding the acts which constituted the crime. The only events at trial which might arguably constitute a waiver are the statements that were made in chambers during the verdict form conference. On that occasion, the sole relevant remark by petitioner's counsel was that he wanted the not guilty form submitted to the jury. Thereafter, the judge commented in pertinent part: "Three verdicts will be given. No objections." Whether the judge was stating "there will be no objections," or "there are no objections," or asking "are there no objections?"*fn16 simply cannot be ascertained from the cold record.*fn17 But regardless of what meaning is attributed to the judge's statement, we think it clear that the colloquy as a whole did not constitute a waiver of Ross' right to have the jury decide whether he committed the criminal acts with the requisite intent.

The waiver of a constitutional right must be "an intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right." Johnson v. Zerbst, supra, 304 U.S. at 464, 58 S. Ct. at 1023; see also Brookhart, supra, 384 U.S. at 4, 86 S. Ct. at 1247. The mere failure of counsel to object to a court ruling, which follows on the heels of counsel's express indication of an intent not to surrender the right in question, clearly does not rise to this high standard, particularly since " "courts indulge every reasonable presumption against waiver' of fundamental constitutional rights." Johnson, supra, 304 U.S. at 464, 58 S. Ct. 1023 (citation omitted). Moreover, it has long been the law of this circuit that counsel may not stipulate to facts establishing the guilt of the accused without the defendant's consent. See Achtien v. Dowd, 117 F.2d 989, 993-994 (7th Cir. 1941). Here, there is nothing in the record from which it could reasonably be inferred that Ross knew of and consented to the supposed stipulation: no written or oral statement by the accused, compare e.g., United States v. Strother, 188 U.S. App. D.C. 155, 578 F.2d 397, 403 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (oral statement); United States v. Terrack, 515 F.2d 558, 560 (9th Cir. 1975) (signed stipulation); no representation by counsel that he had consulted petitioner, compare, e.g., Strother, supra, 578 F.2d at 402 ("counsel reported to the court that he had discussed the matter with appellant"); Palfy v. Cardwell, 448 F.2d 328, 330 (6th Cir. 1971) ("counsel testified that prior to trial they had approximately twelve discussions concerning ... stipulations"); no inquiry of the defendant by the trial judge; compare, e.g., Palfy, supra, 448 F.2d at 330; Strother, supra, 578 F.2d at 402-403; nor did the relevant events, which took place in chambers, occur in the presence of petitioner, compare, e.g., Corley v. Cardwell, 544 F.2d 349, 351 (9th Cir. 1976) (admission made during opening argument); United States v. Harper, 460 F.2d 705, 707 (5th Cir. 1972) (stipulation made "in open court").*fn18 See also Wiley v. Sowders, 647 F.2d 642, 650 n.8 (6th Cir. 1981) (defendant's consent to attorneys' concession of guilt "cannot be presumed from a silent trial record"). In addition, it is important to note an unusually sensitive situation would be presented where defense counsel on behalf of a defendant who has pleaded not guilty, stipulates to the defendant's commission of the acts while at the same time contending that the defendant ...

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