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People v. Childress

April 20, 2000

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE, V. JOHN CHILDRESS, APPELLANT.


January 3, 2000

JUSTICE HEIPLE delivered the opinion of the court:

The petitioner, John Childress, appeals from a Cook County circuit court order dismissing his post-conviction petition. Because petitioner was sentenced to death, this court has jurisdiction over the instant appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 651(a) (134 Ill. 2d R. 651(a)). For the following reasons, we now affirm.

BACKGROUND

A jury in the circuit court of Cook County convicted petitioner of first degree murder, home invasion, burglary and attempted aggravated criminal sexual assault and sentenced petitioner to death. On direct appeal, this court reversed petitioner's conviction for burglary, but affirmed petitioner's remaining convictions and death sentence. People v. Childress, 158 Ill. 2d 275 (1994). The United States Supreme Court denied petitioner's petition for writ of certiorari. Childress v. Illinois, 513 U.S. 881, 130 L. Ed. 2d 143, 115 S. Ct. 215 (1994).

Petitioner subsequently filed a post-conviction petition alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective for, inter alia, (1) failing to ask prospective jurors whether they would automatically impose the death penalty if petitioner was found guilty of first degree murder; (2) failing to introduce into evidence photographs of wounds on petitioner's hands which depicted defensive wounds consistent with petitioner's claim that the victim was the initial aggressor; and (3) failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence regarding petitioner's medical and family background at sentencing.

The trial court dismissed petitioner's first and third claims without conducting an evidentiary hearing. The trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing on petitioner's remaining claim regarding defense counsel's failure to introduce the photographs of petitioner's hands. At the evidentiary hearing, the parties stipulated that the victim was stabbed to death on the night of August 15, 1989, and that petitioner was arrested by the police the following day. Deborah Hansen, an investigator for the Cook County public defender's office, testified that on August 17, 1989, she took 10 Polaroid photographs of cuts on petitioner's hands.

Karen Shields, an assistant Cook County public defender, testified that she had been an assistant public defender for approximately eight years when she was appointed to represent petitioner. At that time, Shields was a member of the Cook County public defender's homicide task force, which was composed of more experienced public defenders who exclusively represented defendants charged with murder. Shields testified that she examined the photographs prior to trial but decided not to introduce the photographs into evidence at trial because she thought the wounds were fingernail scratches which could have been inflicted while petitioner was stabbing the victim. Shields also testified that it was impossible to tell from the photographs how old the wounds were. Shields was concerned that the photos were a "double-edged sword" because they were a "vivid reminder" to the jury of the injuries suffered by the petitioner compared to numerous stab wounds suffered by the victim. (The victim sustained 12 stab wounds and 10 incised wounds.) Shields testified that she was concerned the State would use the photos against petitioner.

Charles Buchholz, an assistant Cook County public defender who served as Shields' co-counsel at petitioner's trial, testified that he also examined the photographs of petitioner's hands prior to trial. Buchholz testified that he wrote a memo memorializing why he and Shields decided not to introduce the photographs at trial and placed the memo in petitioner's case file. The memo states that the photos "show some minor scrapes and cuts" which were inconsistent with petitioner's statement that he struggled with the victim and took the knife away from her before stabbing her. Buchholz testified that Karen Shields added a brief notation at the bottom of the memo stating, "The photos do not look like knife wounds but more like cigarette burns."

Kathleen Pantle and Crystal Marchigiani, two assistant Cook County public defenders who worked with Shields on the homicide task force, testified that Shields asked them to look at the photographs of the wounds on petitioner's hands. Pantle testified that she told Shields that the photographs would not help the defense because the injuries were minor and she did not think petitioner's injuries were of the magnitude that would have been inflicted during the course of the struggle with the victim. Marchigiani testified that she also told Shields that she would not use the photographs at trial because she "didn't think that these injuries would lead somebody to act as Mr. Childress was alleged to have acted."

Laverne Lewis, petitioner's cousin, testified that she played cards with petitioner in the afternoon on the day following the murder. Lewis testified that she noticed "[l]ittle small" cuts on petitioner's right hand. She asked petitioner how he got the cuts, and he responded that "he got into it with somebody."

After considering the evidence presented at the hearing, the trial court dismissed petitioner's claim.

ANALYSIS

At the motion to dismiss stage in post-conviction proceedings, all well-pleaded facts that are not positively rebutted by the trial record are to be taken as true. The inquiry into whether a post-conviction petition contains sufficient allegations of constitutional deprivations does not require the trial court to engage in any fact-finding or credibility determinations. People v. Coleman, 183 Ill. 2d 366, 385 (1998). As a result, there is little justification for giving deference to the trial court's conclusions as to the sufficiency of the allegations in the post-conviction petition. Coleman, 183 Ill. 2d at 388-89. The standard of review for a trial court's decision to dismiss post-conviction claims without conducting an evidentiary hearing, therefore, is de novo. Coleman, 183 Ill. 2d at 389. By contrast, we will not reverse a trial court's decision to dismiss petitioner's claim after conducting an evidentiary hearing unless it is manifestly erroneous. Coleman, 183 Ill. 2d at 385.

Petitioner first argues that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to ask prospective jurors during voir dire whether they would automatically impose the death penalty after a conviction of murder. Petitioner argues that counsel's failure to ask this question, which is commonly referred to as a "reverse-Witherspoon" ...


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