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People v. Burt

October 18, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McMORROW


Docket No. 86898-Agenda 2-March 2001.

Defendant, Ronald Burt, appeals from an order of the circuit court of Stephenson County dismissing his amended petition for post-conviction relief without an evidentiary hearing. Because defendant was sentenced to death for the underlying murder convictions, the present appeal lies directly to this court. 134 Ill. 2d R. 651(a).


This court has previously set forth the evidence presented at defendant's trial in our opinion on defendant's direct appeal. See People v. Burt, 168 Ill. 2d 49 (1995). Therefore, we discuss only those facts and evidence necessary to the disposition of this appeal.

On January 16, 1992, the bodies of H. Steven Roy, age 48, and Kevin Muto, age 18, were found in two separate bedrooms of the farm house that Roy rented. Roy and Muto, who had been employed by Roy as a farmhand, had been shot to death.

Defendant was arrested in connection with the deaths on January 17, 1992. Initially, defendant stated that he knew nothing about the crimes. However, after a detective informed defendant that the authorities had gathered information about defendant's involvement in the crimes from Dannie Booth and David Craig, defendant provided a statement.

In his first statement, defendant said that he, Booth and Craig went to Roy's farm to collect a debt allegedly owed to Booth. While inside Roy's house, defendant pointed a .22-caliber rifle at Roy, demanded his wallet and then ordered Roy to walk to a bedroom. Defendant and Booth followed Roy to the bedroom, while Craig remained in the hallway. Defendant pushed Roy onto a bed. According to defendant, when Roy made a movement, defendant shot him because he was afraid Roy might try to "pull something." Booth then took the rifle and shot Roy several times.

Defendant stated that, after the shooting, he, Booth and Craig took a VCR and meat from Roy's home. While they were taking these items, Muto knocked on the door. When Muto refused to leave, Booth took the gun from defendant and walked Muto to a different bedroom. Booth took Muto's wallet, ordered him to lie on the floor, and shot him in the back of the head and back. Defendant then took the rifle from Booth and shot Muto in the back. Subsequently, the three men left the house with the meat, the VCR, a gun, and some of Roy's personal checks.

On January 18, 1992, defendant provided another statement. This statement was tape-recorded and was similar to defendant's first statement. In this statement, defendant added that, after he shot Roy, he and Craig discussed shooting Booth for fear that Booth would disclose the events surrounding Roy's murder. Upon hearing this, Booth took the rifle from defendant and shot Roy several times. Defendant repeated his assertion that he shot Muto in the back only after Booth had shot him in both the head and back.

On January 24, 1992, six days later, defendant asked to speak to authorities. He then provided a third statement. In this third statement, defendant said that he did not shoot Muto, but rather that Booth was the only person who had shot Muto. Defendant stated that he had admitted to shooting Muto to protect Booth, because Booth was only 14 years old.

On February 5, 1992, defendant was charged with, inter alia, two counts of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1), (a)(2), (a)(3) (West 1998)) and armed robbery (720 ILCS 5/18-2(a) (West 1998)) relating to the murders of Roy and Muto. A jury was empaneled to hear the charges in the circuit court of Stephenson County. Prior to defendant's jury trial, the State moved to exclude defendant's third statement, given on January 24, 1992, because, the State argued, it was self-serving hearsay. The trial court granted the State's motion in limine. However, both defense counsel and the trial court clarified on the record that the court's decision to exclude the January 24 statement applied only to the trial and not to the potential sentencing stage of the proceeding. Defense counsel did not attempt to introduce the January 24 statement at defendant's sentencing hearing.

Also prior to trial, on July 13, 1992, defense counsel requested that defendant undergo a fitness evaluation. Pursuant to an order of the circuit court, Dr. Donald Pearson, a psychologist, examined defendant and, after administering 14 tests, concluded that defendant was fit to stand trial. Dr. Pearson noted in his report that defendant stated that he was taking the medications Empirin (imipramine), Sinequan and Valium. Defense counsel stipulated to Dr. Pearson's report, and the trial court found defendant fit to stand trial. No other inquiry into fitness was ordered or conducted.

Defendant's case then proceeded to a jury trial on March 23, 1993. On March 26, 1993, just prior to the time that the State indicated it would rest its case and before the presentation of any defense, defendant's attorneys informed the court that, against their advice, defendant wished to change his plea from not guilty to guilty on all charges. The court admonished defendant concerning the consequences of pleading guilty. When defendant persisted in his guilty pleas, the court determined that, based on the evidence that had been admitted in the proceedings, there was a factual basis to accept the pleas. On March 26, 1993, the court entered judgments of guilty on the counts of first degree murder of Kevin Muto, first degree murder of Steven Roy, and armed robbery.

At a separate sentencing hearing on March 26, 1993, the State sought to prove defendant eligible for the death penalty. The State argued that defendant was eligible for the death penalty because defendant was convicted of murdering two or more individuals (see 720 ILCS 5/9-1(b)(3) (West 1998)) and because defendant killed an individual in the course of another felony (see 720 ILCS 5/9-1(b)(6) (West 1998)), in this case, armed robbery. The jury found defendant eligible for the death penalty only under section 9-1(b)(3), the multiple-murder aggravating factor. 720 ILCS 5/9-1(b)(3) (West 1998).

Subsequently, at defendant's death penalty hearing, the State presented two witnesses in aggravation. The defendant presented seven witnesses in mitigation. Six of those witnesses were family members or friends of defendant, and testified as to his troubled childhood, exposure to family violence, alcohol and drug use and his capacity for kindness. Defendant also presented expert testimony from a clinical psychologist, who concluded that defendant committed the murders while under the influence of an extreme mental or emotional disturbance.

The jury determined that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude imposition of the death penalty. 720 ILCS 5/9-1(g) (West 1998). Defendant moved for a new trial and sentencing hearing, which the trial court denied. On April 1, 1993, defendant was sentenced to death.

On direct appeal, this court affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence. People v. Burt, 168 Ill. 2d 49 (1995). Rehearing was denied on December 4, 1994. Subsequently, the United States Supreme Court denied defendant's petition for certiorari. Burt v. Illinois, 517 U.S. 1211, 134 L. Ed. 2d 936, 116 S. Ct. 1832 (1996). On January 2, 1996, defendant filed a pro se post-conviction petition in the circuit court of Stephenson County. Following the appointment of counsel, defendant filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief on December 29, 1997. The circuit court dismissed defendant's petition for post-conviction relief without an evidentiary hearing.


The Post-Conviction Hearing Act (725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq. (West 1998)) provides a remedy for criminal defendants who have suffered a substantial violation of their federal or state constitutional rights during their original trial or sentencing hearing. People v. Towns, 182 Ill. 2d 491, 502 (1998). An action for post-conviction relief is not an appeal from the underlying judgment, but rather a collateral attack on trial court proceedings in which a defendant has the burden to establish substantial constitutional violations that have not been and could not have been previously adjudicated. People v. Johnson, 191 Ill. 2d 257, 268 (2000). Issues that were decided on direct appeal are barred by the doctrine of res judicata, and issues that could have been raised on direct appeal, but were not, are waived. Johnson, 191 Ill. 2d at 268.

An evidentiary hearing on a post-conviction petition is not a matter of right, but rather is warranted only where the defendant's allegations make a substantial showing that his constitutional rights were violated. People v. Hobley, 182 Ill. 2d 404, 427-28 (1998). In determining whether to grant an evidentiary hearing on a post-conviction petition, all well-pled facts in the defendant's petition and any accompanying affidavits are taken as true. Towns, 182 Ill. 2d at 503. However, nonfactual and nonspecific assertions which merely amount to conclusions are insufficient to require a hearing under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act. People v. Coleman, 183 Ill. 2d 366, 381 (1998).

We review de novo a trial court's dismissal of a post-conviction petition without an evidentiary hearing. Coleman, 183 Ill. 2d at 389.

I. Defendant's Fitness

Defendant raises three issues relating to his fitness to stand trial. In his amended post-conviction petition, defendant contended that: (1) he was denied due process of law because throughout the proceedings he was taking psychotropic medications and yet failed to receive a fitness hearing under section 104-21(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 38, par. 104-21(a)); (2) he was denied effective assistance of counsel when his attorneys failed to request a fitness hearing when they became aware of reasons to doubt his fitness and failed to invoke his mandatory right to a section 104-21(a) fitness hearing; and (3) he was denied due process of law when ...

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