The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Freeman
Docket No. 88663-Agenda 2-January 2002.
In the circuit court of Cook County a jury convicted defendant, Dorothy Williams, of the robbery and murder of Mary Harris. Defendant waived a jury for sentencing. The court found defendant eligible for the death penalty, concluded that there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude imposition of the death penalty, and sentenced defendant to death. This court affirmed defendant's convictions and sentence (People v. Williams, 164 Ill. 2d 1 (1994)), and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari (Williams v. Illinois, 515 U.S. 1136, 132 L. Ed. 2d 818, 115 S. Ct. 2566 (1995)).
In June 1995, petitioner filed a petition with the aid of counsel pursuant to the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq. (West 1994)). Counsel subsequently filed an amended petition and two amendments to the amended petition. The court dismissed the final version of the petition on the State's motion. Petitioner appeals. We reverse and remand.
The facts underlying petitioner's convictions and sentence were set out in this court's opinion on direct appeal (Williams, 164 Ill. 2d 1), and we will not repeat them in detail here. Defendant was convicted of the murder of 97-year-old Mary Harris and the theft of the victim's stereo. The evidence included petitioner's signed confession to the crime. After petitioner waived a jury for sentencing, the court found petitioner death-eligible beyond a reasonable doubt, based on the murder having been motivated by robbery. The case then proceeded to the aggravation/mitigation phase.
In aggravation, the State introduced evidence that petitioner had murdered not only Harris, but had also murdered two other elderly victims and had committed various other crimes against elderly victims. Petitioner was often physically abusive of her elderly robbery victims. The State also adduced evidence of other occasions on which petitioner exhibited aggressive, violent behavior.
In mitigation it was brought to the court's attention that petitioner had no disciplinary violations during her pretrial incarceration other than one incident in which she was verbally abusive and verbally threatening to a correctional officer. Petitioner's mother testified that she and petitioner's father had separated shortly before petitioner's birth, and as a result, petitioner's contact with her father "had been limited essentially to `writing' " before he died, four years prior to the hearing. Williams, 164 Ill. 2d at 26. At the time of the hearing defendant had two children. One of the fathers had died in 1978 and there was testimony that the father of the other child provided no support for his child. Petitioner's daughter testified that petitioner had raised her two children and treated them well.
The trial court found that " `the matters in aggravation so far exceed the matters in mitigation as to reduce the matters in mitigation to insignificance,' " and sentenced petitioner to death. Williams, 164 Ill. 2d at 26.
Petitioner's counsel filed her first post-conviction petition in June 1995. Therein, petitioner alleged that she suffered from a "serious neurological deficit" during and before trial, and had not been competent to stand trial, stating specifically that she had not been competent to make a voluntary statement to the police (her confession), to cooperate with counsel, to waive a jury for sentencing, or to be sentenced. Petitioner contended that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to discover her mental deficits, and that her deficits had been masked by medication administered to her during her pretrial and trial incarceration at the Cook County jail.
This petition was supported by the affidavit of Caryn Tatelli, a social worker employed as a mitigation specialist by the Capital Resource Center. Tatelli stated that petitioner claimed to have a blood clot in her brain resulting from an auto accident at age 12. According to petitioner, the blood clot was related to a visible lump above petitioner's left eyebrow. Tatelli confirmed the existence of the lump, and stated that it "varies in size, depending on the day *** [and] felt like a very deep blister." Petitioner reported migraine headaches and occasionally experienced severe headaches, dizziness and nosebleeds. Tatelli reported that petitioner told her that "she has trouble understanding things which are said to her and things which she reads," stating further that she "easily and quickly forgets what she has read, and that she read and signed documents pertaining to her trial, but that she did not understand what she was reading and signing."
In August 1995, petitioner, through counsel, moved that petitioner be examined for fitness to proceed with the post-conviction action. Petitioner attached two affidavits to the motion. In the first, petitioner's counsel averred that he had some doubt of petitioner's ability to understand and communicate with him. The second affidavit was sworn out by Dr. Linda Wetzel, a psychologist. Dr. Wetzel performed several tests to establish petitioner's level of intellectual function. She concluded that petitioner was "experiencing the long term effects of a closed head injury, incurred at age 11, which have diminished her intellectual level to the mentally retarded level. She is significantly limited in her capacity to understand or remember the explanations or instructions of her lawyer." Dr. Wetzel recommended that petitioner be given a CAT scan and MRI in order to better quantify her head injury.
On petitioner's motion, the court ordered an evaluation of petitioner's fitness to participate in post-conviction proceedings. Discovery on this issue lasted for nearly three years. During this time petitioner was examined and her fitness was evaluated by several professionals, both psychologists and psychiatrists. Finally in May 1998 the court commenced the hearing on petitioner's fitness for purposes of post-conviction proceedings.
At the May 1998 hearing the assistant State's Attorney stated for clarification that it was the understanding of the State that the only issue to be addressed in that hearing was petitioner's competency for purposes of post-conviction proceedings. The court noted that it "hoped we were going to go into the hearing itself if she was found competent. If not, of ...