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Pierre v. Walls

July 23, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 95 C 5040--Charles P. Kocoras, Chief Judge.

Before Flaum, Chief Judge, Bauer and Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge.


Robert St. Pierre committed two brutal murders for hire in 1982. St. Pierre was tried and convicted of the murders in Illinois state court in 1983. On direct appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial based on the admission of an improperly obtained confession. People v. St. Pierre, 522 N.E.2d 61 (Ill. 1988). On remand, St. Pierre accepted responsibility and pled guilty to the two murders in 1989, rather than face another trial. St. Pierre then exhausted his state post-conviction remedies, People v. St. Pierre, 588 N.E.2d 1159 (Ill. 1992), and sought federal habeas relief.

The district court dismissed the petition for writ of ha- beas corpus finding five of the seven claims had been pro- cedurally defaulted and the other two lacked merit. St. Pierre appealed, and we reversed the dismissal of six of the seven claims, concluding they were not procedurally de- faulted. St. Pierre v. Cowan, 217 F.3d 939 (7th Cir. 2000). On remand, the district court granted the petition in part, as to the sentencing phase, but denied it in all other re- spects. United States ex rel. St. Pierre v. Cowan, 2001 WL 1001164 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 27, 2001). St. Pierre now appeals the partial denial of the petition, arguing that his coun- sel was ineffective at the pleading stage and that his guilty plea was not made knowingly and voluntarily. The State of Illinois decided not to cross-appeal the partial grant of the petition for the sentencing phase; thus, regardless of the outcome of this appeal, St. Pierre will receive a new sentencing hearing. *fn1 For the following reasons, we affirm the denial of the remainder of the petition for writ of ha- beas corpus.


At age 19, Robert St. Pierre was involved in a brutal mur- der for hire scheme in 1982, just three weeks after he was paroled from prison. Subsequently, St. Pierre developed a friendship with a man named Barry Wilson. At the time, Barry Wilson was dating one Jackie Gibons. Wilson be- came angry with Jackie's parents, Benjamin and Sybil Gibons, because they had taken away Jackie's credit cards and no longer supplied her with cash. This caused Jackie to be unable to supply Wilson with money, and so he de- vised a scheme to kill her parents.

Originally, Wilson planned on doing the job himself, and had even bought a gun. However, Wilson's attempt at mur- der was thwarted when he fell through a window at the Gibons' home and abruptly fled. Wilson told Jackie about the attempt and told her to clean up the mess he had made. Instead, Jackie told her parents about Wilson's attempt, and they contacted the police.

A short time later, Jackie and Wilson met with St. Pierre in downtown Chicago to discuss hiring St. Pierre to com- mit the murders. They discussed the method, timing, and payment in detail. St. Pierre agreed that he would kill Ben- jamin and Sybil Gibons for $500 up-front for each murder and $2,000 later (although as much as $10,000 was dis- cussed). The plan called for St. Pierre to kill the Gibons at around 6 p.m. that evening.

St. Pierre later met with Jackie Gibons in an alley be- hind her workplace to verify that she still wanted the mur- ders to take place. Reassured of Jackie's intent, St. Pierre went to the Gibons' home in Skokie, Illinois, at 6:30 p.m. Jackie introduced St. Pierre to her father (Sybil Gibons was not at home), and St. Pierre spoke with Benjamin Gibons for a while. Benjamin Gibons then proceeded into the kitchen and St. Pierre picked up a hammer, followed Benjamin into the kitchen and bludgeoned him to death. After Benjamin was dead, St. Pierre robbed him, taking all the money in his wallet. As planned, Jackie then called Wilson, who came over, and the three cleaned up the bloody kitchen, wrapped Benjamin Gibons's body in a plastic bag, and placed it in the master bedroom.

At 7 p.m., Detective McLaughlin called the home look- ing for Benjamin Gibons to follow up on investigation of the murder attempt by Wilson. Jackie told the detective that her father was out and that she would have him return the call when he came home. At approximately 7:10 p.m., Sybil Gibons called and asked Jackie to pick her up at the Skokie Swift train station. First, Jackie drove Wilson to a hardware store to buy some plastic bags, sheets, and tape, and to a liquor store. Jackie drove Wilson back to her home, and then went to the station to pick up her mother. Upon arriving back at the home, Jackie let her mother enter the home first. As planned, St. Pierre was waiting in the hallway and he bludgeoned Sybil Gibons to death, hitting her on the head with a hammer as she walked through the front door of her own home. The killers cleaned up the blood and wrapped Sybil Gibons's body in plastic. St. Pierre and Wilson punched a hole in the wall leading to the driveway, so they could load the bodies into the trunk without being seen. St. Pierre was to accom- pany Wilson to dispose of the bodies in Arkansas (or Cal- ifornia, accounts differ) and receive the rest of his money. St. Pierre then went home and waited to take the trip and collect his payment. Instead of picking up St. Pierre, Wilson drove the bodies to New Mexico where he buried them in a shallow grave.

A few days later Sybil Gibons's sister contacted the po- lice because Sybil had not been to work for several days. A detective was dispatched to the Gibons' home and there he discovered evidence of the carnage that was not com- pletely cleaned up by the killers. The detective also found a belt belonging to St. Pierre, bearing his name and pris- on identification number. The next day the police ques- tioned Jackie Gibons and she gave the police a statement about the murders. The police then apprehended St. Pierre; Wilson was later arrested in Arizona.

St. Pierre was interviewed at the police station and given his Miranda warnings multiple times. Initially he wished to make a statement to the police, however, an assist- ant state's attorney arrived to question St. Pierre before the police could obtain a statement. A court reporter was present, and from the colloquy reprinted in the Illinois Su- preme Court opinion it appears that St. Pierre wished to make a statement, but was confused by the assistant state's attorney rehashing the Miranda issue. After confusing him- self and St. Pierre, the state's attorney attempted to re- affirm his understanding that St. Pierre wished to give a statement without a lawyer. St. Pierre responded: "No, no. I don't want a lawyer." Thereafter, St. Pierre gave a state- ment where he admitted his role in the murders described above.

A. The First Trial & Appeal

A full and complete trial, including a mitigation hearing, was held in 1983. Initially, the defense counsel moved to suppress St. Pierre's statement on the grounds that it was taken in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. The mo- tion was denied. After hearing all the evidence described above, the jury convicted St. Pierre on all counts and sen- tenced him to death.

Although it appears that St. Pierre actually intended to waive his right to counsel, the Illinois Supreme Court found that the confession was improperly obtained. De- spite the overwhelming evidence of guilt, including the testimony of co-defendant Jackie Gibons, the court focused on the effect confessions have on juries and trial strategy, and reversed, concluding that it was not harmless error to admit the confession. The case was then remanded for a new trial.

B. The Second Trial

The new trial began in 1988, before Cook County Circuit Judge Richard Neville. Judge Neville appointed Robert Barasa, a seasoned trial attorney and former Cook County Public Defender, *fn2 as counsel for St. Pierre. *fn3 In the initial proceedings, a very short time after Barasa was appointed counsel, *fn4 St. Pierre announced his intention to plead guilty to the charges. *fn5

St. Pierre's decision to plead guilty after winning on ap- peal struck Judge Neville as odd and he ordered a compe- tency hearing. St. Pierre's counsel also told the judge his concern that St. Pierre might be pleading improvidently in order to avoid any further incarceration in the unpleas- ant conditions at Cook County Jail. Counsel for St. Pierre also suggested the examination. Judge Neville's decision was principally motivated by the intent not to create re- versible error for failing to explore a potential issue. *fn6

After the examination, Judge Neville methodically went through the consequences of pleading guilty with St. Pierre. Judge Neville emphasized to St. Pierre that he was "again cloaked with the presumption of innocence" and he had a right to a trial in which the government has the burden to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge then heard testimony from an impartial psychiatrist, Dr. Albert Stipes, of the Cook County Psychiatric Institute. *fn7 Dr. Albert Stipes had examined St. Pierre and opined that St. Pierre was competent to stand trial. *fn8 Dr. Stipes stated that St. Pierre's "knowledge of the charges against him, as well as the proceedings and the duties of court personnel, are quite sophisticated." *fn9 Counsel for St. Pierre cross-examined Dr. Stipes on the issue of St. Pierre's prob- lems with the living conditions at the Cook County Jail.

Before Dr. Stipes stepped down from the witness stand, the judge asked St. Pierre if he had any questions for Dr. Stipes. St. Pierre responded in the negative.

Following the expert testimony, Judge Neville made it clear that he ordered the examination based on the unusual circumstances of the case, and "there was no general in- dication of any specific abnormality on the part of Mr. St. Pierre that required me to ask for an examination." Judge Neville observed that St. Pierre had meaningfully partici- pated in the proceedings and his defense. The judge ques- tioned St. Pierre on the issue of whether he was plead- ing guilty simply to return to Menard and avoid any further stay at the Cook County Jail. (St. Pierre was more than merely displeased with the conditions at Cook County; he apparently had a boyfriend at Cook County who was moved to Menard, so St. Pierre also sought to be moved back to Menard for the duration of proceedings.) St. Pierre stated, "I am pleading voluntarily." When pressed on the issue again, St. Pierre replied: "[T]o enter a plea of not guilty, okay, when in fact I did commit the crime would be tantamount to trying to get away with murder, and that's not my intention." During the discussion St. Pierre's counsel stated that he did not recommend the plea, and that he was still uncomfortable with his client's decision, but conceded that it was St. Pierre's "wish to proceed as he stated."

1. Acceptance of the Guilty Plea

Following this lengthy investigation and hearing, Judge Neville unequivocally concluded that St. Pierre under- stood his rights, options, and made the decision to plead guilty knowingly and voluntarily. Counsel for St. Pierre also stated that he explained the possible repercussions of a guilty plea to the defendant, and that death was a pos- sible sentence. With counsel's assistance St. Pierre signed a written jury waiver. Thereafter, St. Pierre was allowed to plead guilty to two counts each of murder, armed robbery and concealment of a homicide. *fn10

The next day, St. Pierre's counsel filed a motion to with- draw the plea based on the theory that St. Pierre only pled guilty to escape further confinement at the Cook County Jail. Before the motion was argued, St. Pierre interrupted and emphatically stated that the motion was being made by his attorney and against his wishes. St. Pierre's coun- sel argued that he was obligated to file the motion be- cause, in his opinion, a defendant should not be allowed to plead guilty in a capital case without an agreement and the recommendation of his attorney. Once again, Judge Neville covered the issue of whether St. Pierre was pleading guilty to escape the conditions of confinement at the Cook County Jail. St. Pierre made it clear that he was pleading guilty voluntarily and stated: "I am not pleading guilty merely to leave the facility. That, however, is one of the reasons. But the main reason is that I am in fact guilty of the crime." The motion to withdraw the plea was denied.

2. Sentencing

St. Pierre waived his right to sentencing by a jury and the right to a presentence report, but the judge noted that there was a report prepared from the prior trial which could be used. *fn11 St. Pierre stated that he did not want a mitigation hearing. The judge proceeded with the aggravation phase, and strongly encouraged St. Pierre to ask for a mitigation hearing. The judge even gave St. Pierre time to think about it overnight.

The next day Judge Neville again admonished him to request a mitigation hearing, and allowed St. Pierre to consider the option while the state put on evidence of ag- gravating factors. St. Pierre finally told his counsel that he would agree to a mitigation hearing, if it could pro- ceed "expeditiously". The judge asked counsel if he needed any time to prepare witnesses, and counsel noted that Monte Williams, an unlicenced psychologist working for the DOC at Menard, could be a potential mitigation witness. *fn12 St. Pierre still wished to proceed with haste, but relented and allowed counsel time to call Williams.

At the next court appearance, counsel for St. Pierre filed a motion to have St. Pierre's sanity at the time of the crime determined. St. Pierre clearly stated that he wished to proceed with the mitigation hearing and not with coun- sel's motion. The rejection of this issue by St. Pierre was nothing new, counsel had previously suggested using insanity as a defense at trial, but it was squarely rejected by St. Pierre. Over St. Pierre's objections, Judge Neville al- lowed Williams to testify as an expert in support of the motion and in mitigation.

During the hearing Williams testified that he spoke with St. Pierre several times over the course of four years. They usually spoke about things other than the murder, which they spoke about only once, three years before Williams testified. Williams discussed his shared intellectual inter- ests with St. Pierre, including Egyptology and writing. Williams did not bring St. Pierre's file to court because he believed confidentiality rules prohibited its disclosure, which made his testimony disjointed. *fn13 Williams diagnosed

St. Pierre as having adjustment disorder with mixed emo- tional features and substance abuse disorder. On cross- examination Williams conceded that such problems are surely not uncommon among prisoners. Williams also acknowledged that two licensed psychiatrists at Menard (Dr. Gupta and Dr. Vallabhaneni) examined St. Pierre and filed reports, neither concluded that St. Pierre was psychotic. Additionally, Williams did not properly state the legal standard for insanity and the state objected to his testimony on foundation grounds, so the judge found Wil- liams could not provide an expert opinion concerning St. Pierre's sanity.

In support of the motion and as part of the mitiga- tion evidence, defense counsel introduced another fitness report on St. Pierre, prepared for the first trial by Associ- ated Mental Health Services. The report, composed by Dr. Braun, found St. Pierre had an antisocial personality disorder with feelings of inadequacy. The report also stated that St. Pierre's "mental status . . . [was] basically with- in normal limits." The report concluded: "Mr. Robert St. Pierre competent to stand trial . . . [and] [h]e understands the nature of his offense and can participate in his defense." This report was based on records and reports from Illinois Masonic Hospital, Cermack Hospital, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), River Trails School, the Institute for Applied Behavioral and Psychiatric Research, J.F. Steffens and Associates, and the Illinois Department of Corrections. *fn14 After hearing all the evidence, Judge Neville denied counsel's motion to determine sanity at the time of the crime.

St. Pierre's counsel also called Father John P. Smyth, of Maryville Academy, to testify in mitigation. *fn15 Father Smyth testified about St. Pierre's parents, school and fam- ily experiences. The testimony of Raymond Chodorowski, St. Pierre's half-brother, from the first trial was read into the record. Chodorowski had testified about St. Pierre's early childhood and family life. Finally, St. Pierre tes- tified describing his childhood, family life, parents, and living in a group home. St. Pierre noted his current inter- ests in grammar, poetry, and ancient Egypt, and stated that life in prison would ...

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