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09/27/89 the People of the State of v. Willie Thomas

September 27, 1989





545 N.E.2d 654, 131 Ill. 2d 104, 137 Ill. Dec. 1 1989.IL.1516

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Hon. William E. Gierach, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE CALVO delivered the opinion of the court.


Defendant, Willie Earl Thomas, was indicted in the circuit court of Cook County on two counts of murder (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, pars. 9-1(a)(1), (a)(2)), one count of armed violence (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 33A-2), and one count of indecent liberties with a child (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 38, par. 11-4(a)(1)) in violation of the Criminal Code of 1961. The armed violence count was subsequently nol-prossed by the State. Defendant was tried by a jury and found guilty on the remaining counts of murder and indecent liberties with a child. At defendant's death penalty hearing, the jury found defendant eligible for capital punishment on the basis of a stipulation that the decedent was killed in the course of the offense of indecent liberties. The jury found no mitigating circumstances sufficient to preclude imposition of the death penalty. Defendant was thereupon sentenced to death on the murder charges and to a 30-year extended term of imprisonment on the indecent liberties charge. Defendant's post-trial motion was denied, and he brings a direct appeal to this court (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, 4(b); 107 Ill. 2d R. 603).

Defendant has raised numerous issues for our consideration. Our review of the record reveals one issue to be dispositive of the appeal: Was defendant denied effective assistance of counsel by his attorney's contemporaneous representation of an informant/witness against defendant? We believe defendant was denied effective assistance of counsel because his attorney labored under a per se conflict of interest; therefore, we reverse defendant's convictions and remand the cause for a new trial. We will briefly summarize the facts as they pertain to this issue.

The body of 15-year-old Laura Lee Trass was discovered along a driveway in Harvey, Illinois, on the morning of May 20, 1984. Trass had been stabbed numerous times and had been disemboweled. Seminal material was discovered on the decedent's panties and jeans.

While on routine patrol on the evening of May 20, 1984, Chicago police officers were approached by Madis Lacy, defendant's cousin. Lacy allegedly told the officers she had seen bloodstains in defendant's car and had been informed by defendant's wife that defendant had "gutted" a girl in Harvey. Lacy gave the officers a picture of defendant and defendant's mother's address. Later, Lacy contacted the police to advise them that she had been warned by defendant's mother that defendant was about to flee and had said he would not be taken alive. After speaking with Lacy, police officers proceeded to defendant's mother's home in Chicago, where they placed defendant under arrest. Prior to making the arrest, officers corroborated Lacy's statements only to the extent of verifying that a girl's body had been found in Harvey.

Defendant was transported to Harvey, where he was informed of his Miranda rights and gave a statement to police. Defendant stated that he was driving in Harvey during the early morning hours of May 20, 1984, when he encountered Laura Lee Trass, a prostitute he had known. In response to Trass' inquiries about money he owed her, defendant assured Trass that he had the money and would pay her if she would have sex with him again. Defendant and Trass drove to a secluded location where, in the back seat of defendant's car, they had "an affair" consensually. They returned to the front seat and, shortly thereafter, Trass indicated she had to leave. As she opened the door, defendant pulled a knife and began stabbing her. Trass jumped out of the car and defendant followed, repeatedly stabbing her, and continuing to stab her after she fell to the ground. Defendant then pulled down her pants and cut her abdomen. When he got home, he told his wife he had stabbed Trass. The next morning defendant's wife advised him that there was blood "all over the car."

Sometime in late May of 1984, defendant retained attorney Cassandra Watson to represent him. Watson filed a motion to suppress the confession on January 7, 1985, amendments thereto on July 21, 1985, and a motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence on July 21, 1985. The latter motion was premised on the contention that the police arrested defendant without a warrant or probable cause. Defendant's suppression hearing commenced on March 31, 1986, and concluded on June 2 when the court denied defendant's motions.

From circuit court documents in another case which were supplemented to the record on appeal without objection, it appears that attorney Watson undertook the representation of Madis Lacy on a 1984 charge of welfare fraud no later than January 9, 1985. Records from that case, which were apparently not brought to the attention of the circuit court, but which we may consider on appeal (see People v. Guest (1986), 115 Ill. 2d 72, 114), indicate that Watson filed a motion to suppress Lacy's confession on April 9, 1985, and amendments thereto on July 9, 1985. Although the documents from Lacy's pending criminal case do not reveal when Watson's representation of Lacy terminated, clearly, Watson was still representing Lacy on April 21, 1986, at the time of defendant's suppression hearing. On that date, Watson filed an answer to the State's request for discovery in Lacy's case.

It was the State, rather than Watson, that first apprised the trial court of Watson's contemporaneous representation of defendant and Lacy. After defendant's suppression hearing -- where officers testified regarding Lacy's statements, but where Lacy was not called as a witness -- a pretrial hearing was held on November 13, 1986, wherein the prosecutor informed the court that Madis Lacy was a State witness and that Watson was attorney of record in Lacy's pending felony case. The following colloquy ensued:

"THE PROSECUTOR: Now, I don't know if that's going to present a problem as far as the Court is concerned or as far as, you know, conflicts and what not. I thought it should just be made of record in case it, you ...

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