The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice REID*fn1
As amended October 29, 2001.
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County Honorable Loretta Hall-Morgan and Mary Ellen Coghlan, Judges Presiding.
MODIFIED UPON DENIAL OF REHEARING
Ladius Stevens (Stevens) was charged with multiple counts of murder, felony murder, aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle, possession of a stolen motor vehicle and burglary. These charges stem from Stevens having stolen a Ford Explorer and leading the police on a high-speed chase culminating in the Explorer striking another vehicle. As a result of that collision, Guadalupe Guzman, the driver of the other vehicle, was killed. Defendant pled guilty to two counts of murder and one count of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle. The trial court sentenced defendant to 27 years in prison for murder and a concurrent sentence of 10 years on the aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle count. On appeal, defendant asserts that the trial court should have granted his motion to withdraw his plea of guilty and, in the alternative, his sentence was excessive. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
Prior to trial commencing on January 8, 1997, the parties participated in a plea conference in July of 1996 with the trial judge, the late Honorable Loretta Hall-Morgan. During this conference, the judge informed defense counsel that upon defendant pleading guilty to the charges, she would sentence the defendant to 20 years in prison. The defendant rejected this offer and elected to be tried in a bench trial before Judge Hall-Morgan. Prior to the start of trial, the State dismissed the burglary and the felony murder charge based on burglary. After the presentation by the State of the first two witnesses, Stevens moved to change his plea to guilty. Judge Hall-Morgan advised the defendant repeatedly that she did not feel bound by the prior offer of 20 years and she could sentence the defendant to a longer sentence, if he pled guilty. Defendant persisted in his request to plead guilty and the court accepted his plea to one count of murder based on the defendant knowing his actions created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to Guzman; one count of felony murder based on aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle, and one count of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle. When he next appeared in court, Stevens indicated he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming he had been misrepresented by his trial counsel and that he did not fully understand the nature of his plea. The trial court denied Stevens' motion to withdraw.
The trial court, after a hearing in aggravation and mitigation, sentenced Stevens to 27 years on the charge of first degree murder and 10 years on the charge of aggravated possession of a motor vehicle. These sentences were to be served concurrently. Fifteen days after the sentencing hearing, Stevens filed a pro se motion to withdraw the guilty plea and to vacate the sentence. Stevens also filed a motion to reconsider the sentence, claiming in part that his actions resulting in Guzman's death were reckless and not knowing or intentional. The trial court denied both motions, finding they had not been timely filed as Stevens had filed his notice of appeal the day after he was sentenced, thereby depriving the trial court of jurisdiction to hear motions.
The first appeal, docketed under appellate No. 1-97-1560, raised numerous legal issues including the trial court's inadequate admonishments as to defendant's right to appeal, abuse of discretion in failing to allow Stevens to withdraw his guilty plea and an excessive sentencing argument. In the published opinion of People v. Stevens, 297 Ill. App. 3d 408 (1998) (Stevens I), this court remanded the matter back to the trial court so that Stevens could be adequately advised of his rights to appeal under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 605(b)(145 Ill. 2d R. 605(b)) and, if he so elected, to file a new motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The opinion in Stevens I contemplated that, if Stevens' motion to withdraw his plea was denied, he would be allowed to appeal the denial pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 604(d)(145 Ill. 2d R. 604(d)) and consolidate it with the remaining issues in the previous appeal, over which this court specifically retained jurisdiction. The State's Attorney's office appealed this court's ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court under case number 85862. The supreme court denied that appeal.
Stevens, upon the remand back to the trial court, appeared before the Honorable Mary Ellen Coghlan *fn2 and was properly notified of his appeal rights. Shortly thereafter, Stevens filed another pro se motion to withdraw his guilty plea. After a hearing, the trial court denied said motion, which led to Stevens' second appeal, docketed by this court as No. 1-99-2026. In accordance with its prior ruling, this court consolidated the appeal of the most recent denial of Stevens' motion to withdraw his guilty plea into the remaining issues of the original appeal, over which this court had retained jurisdiction.
Stevens argues on appeal that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea prior to sentencing. Stevens claims the discretion of the trial court is not absolute where the defendant has a defense worthy of consideration or where the ends of justice would better be served in allowing the cause to proceed to trial. He argues that the public policy preferring a trial to a plea in a criminal case is overcome only in the face of a countervailing policy. Here, according to Stevens, the entry of a plea was not made in order to extort concessions from the State. Stevens argues that the fact that the State dismissed duplicative charges before the plea was entered constituted no concessions by the State since the facts would show there was only one victim and one collision. Stevens points out that, even if the State prevailed at every stage, it could not have secured more than the charges that were ultimately brought against him because there cannot be more than one conviction for each physical act by a given defendant. Stevens argues that the trial court's ruling on remand that Stevens was attempting to withdraw his guilty plea as "gamesmanship" is misplaced. He argues that, in order to support a claim of "gamesmanship," it would require a finding that Stevens, by his actions, extracted favorable concessions from the State. While defendant was initially charged with burglary and felony murder predicated on burglary, these charges were dropped by the State prior to the commencement of the bench trial. Stevens also argues that the State was not really prejudiced by the prospect that it would have to plan for a trial.
In denying Stevens' motion to withdraw his guilty plea, the trial court on remand commented that Stevens may or may not have had defenses to bring at a trial on the merits. Stevens argues that the trial court's comments suggests the case was close. Accordingly, Stevens argues that, for the trial court on remand to have decided that this is essentially a close case yet steadfastly refused to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea is a manifest abuse of the trial court's discretion.
The State argues that the trial court's decision to deny the motion to withdraw the plea was not an abuse of discretion. The State contends that the plea was knowingly and voluntarily made and that the actions of engaging in a high-speed chase with the police created a strong probability of death or great bodily harm and that the sentence of 27 years is not an abuse of discretion. The State also argues that the trial court's finding that Stevens was engaging in gamesmanship was correct. It also argues that there is no real suggestion of the existence of reasonable doubt here and the sentence imposed is well within the statutory limits. It argues there is no reason to invalidate the plea and force a trial which will ultimately yield nothing new or different from the result thus far. Additionally, it argues that it is wrong to characterize the trial court's comments that Stevens may or may not have had a defense to assert at trial as a finding that this is a close case. The trial court never specifically found the existence of a meritorious ...