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People v. Rhoades

July 13, 2001


Circuit Court of Bond County. No. 92-CF-4 Honorable Edward C. Ferguson, Judge, presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Goldenhersh


Robert Ben Rhoades (defendant), pursuant to negotiations with the State, on September 11, 1992, pled guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to imprisonment for natural life. The sentence of death had been a possibility because on May 6, 1992, the State had filed a notice that it intended to seek the death penalty. This is defendant's third appeal to this court. Due to the procedural history of this case, this is a direct appeal from defendant's conviction. On this appeal, defendant initially contended that the circuit court erred in refusing to allow him to file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, after a remand from this court following defendant's second appeal. On the motion of defendant, this court allowed defendant to file a supplemental brief that raises the issue of whether the statute under which defendant was sentenced is unconstitutional. He relies on the United States Supreme Court's decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 147 L. Ed. 2d 435, 120 S. Ct. 2348 (2000).

Prior to the entry of the guilty plea, a hearing was held pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 402 (134 Ill. 2d R. 402(c)). The parties agreed that to establish a factual basis, the court could take judicial notice of the evidence presented to the grand jury which indicted defendant. *fn1 The grand jury heard evidence that the victim, Regina K. Walters, age 14, was last seen alive at her mother's apartment on February 3, 1990, in Pasadena, Texas, and that in April 1990, defendant, an over-the-road truck driver, was arrested in Casa Grande, Arizona, where he was charged with kidnapping and sexual assault. Defendant had been a suspect in a kidnapping/rape case in which the victim, F.R.T., had been taken from California to Houston, Texas. F.R.T. had been kept chained up in the back of defendant's truck for a two-week period during which defendant had raped F.R.T. This victim was able to escape.

The grand jury also heard evidence that defendant was arrested in Arizona when a state trooper stopped to check on defendant's tractor-trailer, which was parked along the side of a highway, and noticed a nude woman handcuffed and chained to the sleeper of defendant's tractor-trailer. When the officer shined a light into the truck, the woman started screaming, and defendant got out of the truck. Regina K. Walters' notebook was found in defendant's truck.

The grand jury heard evidence that a search warrant was issued for defendant's residence in Houston, Texas. The search produced numerous items of women's clothing, numerous obscene magazines and books, and instruments that could be used in bondage-type situations. The search also produced photographs of nude women, one of whom was Regina K. Walters. Some of the clothing that was found resembled the clothing worn by Walters in other photographs found in defendant's apartment. Other photographs showed Walters in defendant's truck and in front of the barn where her body was found.

Lastly, the grand jury heard evidence that from the trip logs of defendant's employment, it was determined that he had been on Interstate 70 in Bond County during February or March 1990. The victim's badly decomposed body was found on September 29, 1990, in a barn along Interstate 70. It appeared that she had been strangled. The method of strangulation was described as follows: "A small piece of board inserted through a double wire loop of baling wire, twisted clockwise around the neck of the body."

During the Rule 402 hearing, the court informed defendant that the court could impose a term of natural-life imprisonment without parole if the court decided his actions were exceptionally brutal and heinous indicative of wanton cruelty.

Within 30 days of sentencing, defendant filed a motion to reduce sentence, which was denied after a hearing. On defendant's first appeal, he contended that because defense counsel did not file a certificate of compliance with Supreme Court Rule 604(d) (145 Ill. 2d R. 604(d)), the cause should be remanded for further proceedings to consider defendant's motion at a hearing after compliance was shown. This court reversed that portion of the trial court's judgment denying defendant's motion to reduce sentence and remanded the cause for further proceedings. People v. Rhodes, 259 Ill. App. 3d 1054, 674 N.E.2d 1284 (1994) (unpublished order pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 23 (166 Ill. 2d R. 23)) (defendant's name was misspelled in the casebooks).

On August 24, 1994, the mandate of this court issued. On September 21, 1994, the trial court received a letter from defendant in which he wrote that he withdrew his plea of guilty and that his three trial attorneys did not respond to letters mailed to them. On September 26, 1994, the court appointed Jon Coleman, one of defendant's previous trial attorneys, to represent him on the remand from this court. The order advised defendant to discuss with his attorney what documents should be filed.

On October 21, 1994, Coleman filed a motion to withdraw as counsel for defendant, on the basis that defendant accused Coleman of committing error in his prior representation of defendant.

On January 23, 1995, the trial court received another letter from defendant. Defendant wrote that he had told Coleman that defendant would present evidence in court that he had been coerced to plead guilty by all of his attorneys and by the Bond County sheriff's office. Defendant also wrote that he had previously fired Coleman as his counsel. Defendant further wrote, "[I]f a new attorney has been appointed, I wish the court to order them to contact me at once," and "[P]lease acknowledge this letter by return mail, including any pertinent information on my new attorney."

On January 31, 1995, the trial court allowed Coleman to withdraw as counsel for defendant. The court found that the sentence was the result of plea negotiations binding the court and all parties, that defendant had clearly stated that he did not wish to withdraw his guilty plea but only wanted his sentence reduced, and that, therefore, pursuant to then-recent opinions of this court, counsel need not be appointed when a plea and sentence were fully negotiated. The trial court denied defendant's motion to reduce sentence without appointing counsel and without conducting a hearing. On defendant's second appeal, he asked that the cause be again remanded to the trial court because the trial court denied his Rule 604(d) motion without appointing counsel. People v. Rhoades, No. 5-95-0084 (February 7, 1996) (unpublished order pursuant to Rule 23) (Rhoades II).

This court reversed and remanded pursuant to People v. Maltimore, 161 Ill. 2d 535, 647 N.E.2d 586 (1995) (supervisory order), in which our supreme court vacated our earlier decision in that matter (see People v. Maltimore, 268 Ill. App. 3d 532, 644 N.E.2d 478 (1994)) and remanded the case to the circuit court of Madison County for the filing of a new motion to reduce sentence. Rhoades II, order at 4. We reasoned, "Under Rule 604(d) a trial court has an obligation to appoint counsel except in situations where a defendant 'affirmatively, knowingly, and intelligently waives appointment of counsel.' " Rhoades II, order at 4-5 (quoting People v. Ledbetter, 174 Ill. App. 3d 234, 238, 528 N.E.2d 375, 378 (1988)). This court could not find, as the State had argued, that defendant's actions were tantamount to a waiver of counsel. This court reversed the order of the circuit court of Bond County denying the motion to reduce sentence, and we remanded the cause ...

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