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People v. Tenner

October 18, 2002


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Fitzgerald

Docket No. 90394-Agenda 2-May 2002.

Modified Upon Denial of Rehearing - see opinion filed 3/31/03

The defendant, James Tenner, appeals a Cook County circuit court order dismissing his second post-conviction petition without an evidentiary hearing. Because the defendant was sentenced to death, his appeal lies directly to this court. See 134 Ill. 2d R. 651(a). We affirm.


The defendant and Albert Sauls worked together in various businesses throughout the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, the defendant and Sauls each operated his own trucking company, sharing a garage in South Chicago Heights. On the evening of September 2, 1987, Sauls and his employee, Alvin Smith, returned to the garage after work and started repairs on one of Sauls' trucks. Sauls' wife, Donna, and the defendant's former girlfriend, Shirley Garza, soon arrived at the garage. Later, as Smith left the garage, he was met outside by the defendant carrying a loaded shotgun. The defendant forced Smith back into the garage and, once inside, ordered Smith, Sauls, and Sauls' wife to lie on the floor. The defendant instructed Garza to tie their wrists and ankles. The defendant then directed everyone to his side of the garage where he had strung three nooses over a beam. He told Garza to place a noose around the necks of Smith, Sauls, and Sauls' wife, and he tied another noose for Garza. With his victims incapacitated, the defendant proceeded to harangue them for more than two hours, complaining that Sauls and his wife had interfered with his relationship with Garza. The defendant released Garza and sent her outside the garage. The defendant then shot Donna Sauls in the head and Smith in the abdomen at point-blank range. Both died. The defendant also shot Albert Sauls in the face; he survived.

In 1990, the defendant was convicted of two counts of first degree murder, one count of attempted first degree murder, four counts of aggravated unlawful restraint, and one count of armed violence; he was sentenced to death. On direct appeal, we vacated the defendant's attempted first degree murder conviction, affirmed his other convictions, and affirmed his death sentence. See People v. Tenner, 157 Ill. 2d 341 (1993). The United States Supreme Court denied the defendant's petition for writ of certiorari. See Tenner v. Illinois, 512 U.S. 1246, 129 L. Ed. 2d 882, 114 S. Ct. 2768 (1994).

In 1994, the defendant filed his first post-conviction petition, alleging, inter alia, that his trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to obtain a psychiatric evaluation of the defendant. The defendant asserted that such an evaluation would have provided evidence to support an insanity defense at trial or a mitigating factor at sentencing. The defendant relied upon a 1994 report from Dr. Lyle Rossiter, Jr., an expert consulted by his post-conviction attorney. Dr. Rossiter's report summarized his opinions "regarding the question of whether there is a significant likelihood that James Tenner was suffering from a state of mental and emotional distress at the time of his September 2, 1987, offense sufficient to warrant a psychiatric evaluation for an insanity defense or factors in mitigation." Dr. Rossiter stated that the defendant was in "a highly irrational state caused by a paranoid delusional disorder" on that date and that the defendant "continues to suffer from a less obvious but severe mental disorder which significantly impairs his ability to communicate with [post-conviction] counsel." According to Dr. Rossiter, this disorder is characterized by "vague, evasive, illogical, oppositional and self-contradictory communications and thought processes about his mental state at the time of the offense and about his current participation in post-conviction proceedings." Dr. Rossiter concluded: "[I]t is my opinion that his original attorney's failure to have him psychiatrically examined for an insanity defense or for psychiatric factors in mitigation may represent ineffective assistance of counsel, and that Mr. Tenner is now impaired in his ability to assist present counsel in that determination." In a supplemental petition, the defendant also alleged that a pretrial psychiatric evaluation would have enabled his trial attorneys to make an informed decision "[w]hether a bona fide doubt existed as to the defendant's fitness to cooperate with counsel and thus to stand trial, a doubt which appears to exist in light of Dr. Rossiter's evaluation and conclusion." The trial court dismissed the petition without an evidentiary hearing, and the defendant appealed to this court.

We affirmed. See People v. Tenner, 175 Ill. 2d 372 (1997). We rejected the defendant's argument that defense counsel's performance was deficient:

"This is not a case in which counsel wholly failed to investigate the defendant's background prior to trial or sentencing. Here, defense counsel retained a mitigation expert, who conducted an investigation into the defendant's personal history, though counsel later decided not to call that person as a witness either at trial or at sentencing. Nothing in the record at that time, however, suggested that the defendant suffered from any mental impairment, or that there was any need to pursue a separate inquiry into the defendant's mental condition. ***


Nothing in the defendant's record or personal history disclosed any history of mental illness or emotional disturbance; there was nothing to prompt a separate inquiry into the defendant's mental condition. In rejecting this portion of the defendant's post-conviction petition, the judge below, who had also presided at trial, explained:

`There was nothing to suggest a psychiatric exam in this young Defendant's background. If there had been anything that would have suggested [a] psychiatric exam, I probably would have ordered it sua sponte. I've been known to do that to satisfy myself as to the mental competency of a defendant in front of the bench. There's none of that in this record.'

Like the judge below, we do not believe that counsel acted unreasonably in failing to obtain a mental evaluation of the defendant prior to trial." Tenner, 175 Ill. 2d at 380-81.

We further held that even if the defense counsel's performance had been deficient, the defendant suffered no prejudice. Tenner, 175 Ill. 2d at 381. We stated:

"The defendant does not claim that he was insane at the time of the offenses involved in this case, and the defendant has failed to show that a mental evaluation would have revealed evidence that could have resulted in his acquittal on grounds of insanity.

Notably, Dr. Rossiter did not find that the defendant was insane when he committed the present offenses. Although Dr. Rossiter believed that the defendant was delusional at the relevant time, Dr. Rossiter did not conclude that the defendant was insane." Tenner, 175 Ill. 2d at 381-82.

The Supreme Court denied the defendant's second certiorari petition. See Tenner v. Illinois, 522 U.S. 892, 139 L. Ed. 2d 163, 118 S. Ct. 231 (1997).

The defendant then filed a 38-claim petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The federal district court denied the defendant relief in a lengthy unpublished order. See United States ex rel. Tenner v. Gilmore, No. 97 C 2305 (N.D. Ill. October 8, 1998). The defendant's habeas corpus petition does not appear in the record before us, so we cannot determine precisely what the defendant alleged. According to the district court, the defendant's "first two claims" charged that his constitutional rights were violated because a bona fide doubt about his mental competence existed, but the state trial court did not hold a fitness hearing. The district court rejected the State's argument that these claims were procedurally defaulted because the defendant raised them in his post-conviction petition only through his ineffective assistance of counsel claim: "the general rule that claims not raised in state proceedings are *** barred does not apply to substantive mental competency claims." The district court then turned to the merits of the defendant's competency "claim" and held:

"After reviewing the record in this case, we find no merit in Tenner's competency claim. Although the circumstances surrounding the crime were irrational and bizarre, that alone cannot be equated with mental incompetence. [Citation.] Tenner has no prior history of mental illness and there is ...

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