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People v. Fletcher

November 20, 2002


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Bond County. No. 00-CF-44. Honorable John L. DeLaurenti, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn


Justices: Honorable Clyde L. Kuehn, J. Honorable Terrence J. Hopkins, J. Honorable James K. Donovan, J. Concur

We are presented a case where defense counsel decided to ask his client to share with the jury his entire criminal history. When the defendant forgot to include all of the particulars, the prosecutor guided him through every detail. The jury learned everything about the defendant's sordid past, case by case, including the plea bargains that the defendant received along the way. We are asked to overturn the new conviction that resulted, based upon a constitutional claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

We begin our discussion of what happened with a few simple observations. A significant history of criminality could always provide considerable insight for jurors trying to determine someone's guilt or innocence. However, we have long feared that providing proof of an accused's penchant for criminal behavior would control the decision- making process, resulting in convictions based upon past guilt instead of current evidence. Because anyone charged with a crime is entitled to a trial that weighs whatever evidence exists of that crime, we guard against the use of past guilt to validate new accusations of criminal misconduct.

While evidence of prior criminality cannot be admitted for the purpose of proving criminal propensity, it is allowed to be used, on occasion, after an accused testifies. Whether or not a prior criminal conviction can be used requires a process of balancing its probative value as impeachment against any undue prejudice that it might interpose into a trial. People v. Montgomery, 47 Ill. 2d 510, 515, 268 N.E.2d 695, 698 (1971). Trial judges are the gatekeepers, charged with the responsibility of balancing interests and deciding upon the admission of this narrowly circumscribed form of proof. People v. Williams, 161 Ill. 2d 1, 39, 641 N.E.2d 296, 312 (1994). The limitations placed upon the admission of prior criminal convictions by the Montgomery rule, together with the methodology for its application, are a well-settled part of Illinois law. Most criminal defense lawyers thoroughly understand, based upon the rule, what prosecutors can and cannot legitimately do with a prior criminal history.

The defendant stood trial for vehicular burglary and theft over $300. The jury found him guilty of the theft and not guilty of the burglary. The defendant now serves a five-year prison term, the sentence imposed upon the jury's finding of guilt.

The State's case rested almost entirely upon the testimony of three accomplice witnesses, all of whom inculpated the defendant in order to curry favor from the State. One of the accomplices actually told the jury that he took the witness stand in order to avoid being charged for his role in the crime.

All of the stolen merchandise that forms the basis of the theft conviction was recovered from them or from people to whom they sold the stolen goods. It is beyond dispute that the items purloined, and the proceeds from the sale of some of them, found their way into the hands of the State's key witnesses. According to those witnesses, the defendant helped them procure the stolen merchandise. They testified that he and another accomplice, who was absent from these proceedings, entered a Dodge pickup, bagged a host of electronic devices installed by its owner, and left the bag with them.

The defendant testified. He claimed to be a witness to the State's witnesses committing the burglary. He insisted that he neither planned nor participated in the crime. In order to bolster his disavowal of any guilt, he noted that he did not share in the crime's spoils.

What happened during the last part of the defendant's direct examination and during cross-examination defies adequate description through paraphrase. Here is what happened:

"Q: T.J., I got to ask you this question. You been in trouble with the law before?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Would you tell us about that?

A: Have a kind of extensive history.

Q: Well, tell us about it.

A: I'm sorry. I have past run-ins with the law, juvenile and as-adult. Most of them are criminal trespass because I am not allowed at the-the housing.

Q: Okay.

A: Unlawful consumptions. And[] I had theft of a motor vehicle when I was 14.

Q: When you were 14?

A: 14 or 15.

Q: Okay. Of those various charges, how many of those did you take to trial?

A: None.

Q: None?

A: None.

Q: Why not?

A: I was guilty.

Q: Why are you taking this one to trial?

A: I'm not guilty." (Emphasis added.)

This decidedly unique ploy of having the defendant share his extensive juvenile criminal history with the jury, including a delinquency adjudication based upon car theft, led to a line of uncurbed cross-examination that far surpasses it as a ...

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