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People v. Acosta

December 13, 2001

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
AUGUSTIN V. ACOSTA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Du Page County. No. 96--CF--498. Honorable Michael J. Burke, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman.

Modified April 26, 2002, Upon denial of rehearing.

UNPUBLISHED

Following a bench trial, defendant, Augustin Acosta, was found guilty of first-degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9--1(a)(1), (a)(2) (West 1996)) and subsequently sentenced to natural life imprisonment. Defendant appealed, and this court, on February 3, 1998 (People v. Acosta, 294 Ill. App. 3d 1112 (1998) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23)), affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence. On April 14, 1998, we denied defendant's petition for rehearing. On March 1, 2000, defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief. Following a hearing on the State's motion to dismiss the petition, the trial court granted the motion and denied defendant's petition. This appeal ensued.

Defendant appeals, contending that (1) section 122--1(c) of the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (725 ILCS 5/122--1(c) (West 1998)), which defines the limitations period for filing a post-conviction petition, is unconstitutionally vague; (2) the trial court erred in refusing to grant an evidentiary hearing on the ground that he was coerced into testifying by his trial defense counsel; and (3) his natural life sentence is unconstitutional under the holding in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 147 L. Ed. 2d 435, 120 S. Ct. 2348 (2000).

The following facts are substantially in the same form as they appeared in our Rule 23 order affirming defendant's conviction and sentence. The victim, Tyler Lerma-Miller, lived with his mother Anne Marie Lerma and defendant, Anne Marie's boyfriend. Tyler was born on January 23, 1994. Beginning in February 1996, defendant occasionally cared for Tyler during the day while Anne Marie worked. Over the next month Anne Marie began to notice cuts and bruises on Tyler. On the morning of March 8, 1996, Anne Marie left Tyler with defendant while she was at work. Before arriving at work, she called home and defendant told her that Tyler had fainted while defendant was bathing him.

The police officer who responded to the 911 call observed bruises on Tyler's cheek, neck, chest, arms, and legs. He also noticed that Tyler's neck was red and swollen. The officer attempted resuscitation, but Tyler exhibited no vital signs.

The pathologist who performed the autopsy noticed various bruises on Tyler's body. He found hemorrhaging around the lungs, a laceration of the liver, and fractured ribs. He believed that the internal injuries were consistent with repeatedly being struck with a hand or fist. He considered the cause of death to be multiple injuries due to multiple blunt force trauma.

Defendant, who was 31 years old at the time of trial, admitted that he struck Tyler in the bathtub that morning but that he did not intend to hurt him. He also hit him twice with a plastic pitcher that was used to rinse Tyler's hair. Defendant pulled Tyler out of the tub by his neck but did not choke him. He carried Tyler to the couch. When he came to dress him, he noticed that Tyler had stopped breathing.

At the conclusion of the trial, the court found defendant guilty of first-degree murder.

In his first contention, defendant does not dispute that his post-conviction petition was untimely filed but argues that section 122-- 1(c) of the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (Act) (725 ILCS 5/122--1(c) (West 1998)), which sets forth the limitations period for filing a post-conviction petition, is unconstitutionally vague and, therefore, the trial court's dismissal of his petition based on its untimeliness should be reversed. Defendant admitted in the trial court that the statutorily prescribed time for the filing of his post-conviction petition had expired at the time his petition was filed but maintained that the delay in filing was not due to his culpable negligence. In this court defendant does not challenge the trial court's finding regarding the lack of culpable negligence in timely filing his petition but, instead, for the first time, challenges the constitutionality of the statute that establishes the time limitations within which to file a petition. Defendant acknowledges that he failed to raise this constitutionality claim in the trial court but correctly asserts that the constitutionality of a criminal statute may be challenged at any time. People v. Wright, 194 Ill. 2d 1, 23 (2000). The constitutionality of a statute is a question of law, which we review de novo. People v. McClanahan, 191 Ill. 2d 127, 132 (2000).

Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and the party challenging the constitutionality of a statute has the burden of establishing that it is invalid. Wright, 194 Ill. 2d at 24. Due process requires that a statute must not be "so vague" that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning or application. People v. Warren, 173 Ill. 2d 348, 356 (1996). However, mathematical certainty in language is not required. Warren, 173 Ill. 2d at 356. Further, acts of the legislature must be construed so as to uphold their constitutionality and validity if it can be reasonably done and, if their construction is doubtful, the doubt will be resolved in favor of the validity of the challenged law. People v. Fisher, 184 Ill. 2d 441, 448 (1998).

Section 122--1(c) of the Post-Conviction Hearing Act states as follows:

"No proceedings under this Article shall be commenced more than 6 months after the denial of a petition for leave to appeal or the date for filing such a petition if none is filed or more than 45 days after the defendant files his or her brief in the appeal of the sentence before the Illinois Supreme Court (or more than 45 days after the deadline for the filing of the defendant's brief with the Illinois Supreme Court if no brief is filed) or 3 years from the date of conviction, whichever is sooner, unless the ...


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