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People v. Justice

June 25, 2004

[5] THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
STEVEN J. JUSTICE, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



[6] Appeal from Circuit Court of Adams County. No. 01CF217. Honorable Scott H. Walden, Judge Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Steigmann

[8]  In January 2002, defendant, Steven J. Justice, pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 2000)). In exchange for his guilty plea, (1) the State agreed to (a) dismiss other charges and (b) recommend a sentence of natural life in prison; and (2) the Lincoln County, Nebraska, State's Attorney agreed (a) to recommend a life sentence if defendant pleaded guilty to a first-degree-murder charge then pending in Nebraska and (b) that defendant would serve his sentences in a Nebraska prison. In February 2002, the trial court sentenced defendant to two concurrent terms of natural life in prison.

[9]  In August 2002, defendant filed a second-amended motion to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging, in pertinent part, that he did not knowingly and voluntarily enter his guilty plea because he lacked the mental capacity to do so. Later that month, the trial court granted defense counsel's motion to allow defendant, who was then imprisoned in Nebraska, to return to Illinois for a hearing on the motion to withdraw. In October 2002, defense counsel filed a document waiving defendant's presence at the hearing. At a hearing on defendant's motion held later that month, the court accepted defendant's waiver and proceeded with the hearing. Following the hearing, the court denied defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

[10]   Defendant appeals, arguing that (1) the trial court erred by accepting the waiver of his presence at the October 2002 hearing; and (2) he received ineffective assistance of postplea counsel when counsel allowed him to waive his presence at the hearing. We disagree and affirm.

[11]   I. BACKGROUND

[12]   In July 2001, the State charged defendant and his co-defendant, Billy Reed, with two counts of first degree murder, alleging that they, (1) "without legal justification and with the intent to kill Harold Steiner," shot Harold in the head, thereby causing his death (count I); and (2) "without legal justification and with the intent to kill Bernice Steiner," shot Bernice in the head, thereby causing her death (count II) (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1) (West 2000)). The State later charged defendant and Reed with (1) aggravated arson (count III) (720 ILCS 5/20-1.1 (West 2000)), (2) residential arson (count IV) (720 ILCS 5/20-1.2 (West 2000)), (3) arson (count V) (720 ILCS 5/20-1(a) (West 2000)), and (4) theft of property valued over $300 (count VI) (720 ILCS 5/16-1(a)(1)(A) (West 2000)). The trial court later dismissed count III, upon finding that no probable cause existed. (Defendant's case was severed from Reed's, and Reed is not a party to this appeal.)

[13]   In November 2001, defendant, who was then in the Adams County jail awaiting trial, filed a motion, requesting that the trial court order the Adams County sheriff to transport him to see a physician. Defendant's motion alleged that (1) he was unable to sleep; and (2) jail employees had denied his requests to be examined by a physician. Following a nonevidentiary hearing later that month, the court found that it did not have "sufficient evidence to grant or deny defendant's motion." Nonetheless, the court ordered that jail employees provide any necessary medical treatment to defendant.

[14]   At the January 2002 guilty plea proceedings, the State informed the trial court that defendant had agreed to plead guilty to counts I and II. In exchange for his plea, (1) the State agreed to (a) dismiss the remaining counts and (b) recommend a sentence of natural life in prison; and (2) the Lincoln County, Nebraska, State's Attorney agreed (a) to recommend a life sentence if defendant pleaded guilty to a first-degree-murder charge then pending in Nebraska and (b) that defendant would serve his sentences in a Nebraska prison.

[15]   The trial court confirmed that defendant understood the rights he was giving up by pleading guilty. Defendant informed the court that he (1) had authorized defense counsel to enter into plea negotiations with the State and (2) understood the terms of his plea agreement.

[16]   The State provided, in pertinent part, the following factual basis for defendant's guilty plea. On the evening of July 2, 2001, the Tri-Township fire department was dispatched to a fire at the Steiners' residence, which was located at 8803 Dedert Road in Adams County. Firefighters entered the residence and found the bodies of Harold, who was then 85 years old, and Bernice, who was then 80 years old, in the basement. Police arrived and found that (1) both Harold and Bernice had been tied up and shot in the back of the head; and (2) the Steiners' 1994 red Ford Probe had been stolen.

[17]   During the early morning hours on July 6, 2001, Decatur police officers saw four individuals in a red Ford Probe. Following a high-speed chase, two occupants got out of the car and fled. The other two occupants remained in the car and identified the individuals who fled as defendant and Reed. Officers searched the car (which was determined to belong to the Steiners) and found a pair of pants stained with Harold's blood. Later that morning, officers apprehended defendant and Reed.

[18]   The trial court accepted the State's factual basis, found that defendant had knowingly and voluntarily entered his guilty plea, and accepted the plea.

[19]   Defendant was extradited to Nebraska, where he pleaded guilty to murder (Neb. Rev. Stat. §28-303 (2000)) and was sentenced to life in prison.

[20]   In February 2002, defendant returned to Illinois for his sentencing hearing. At the hearing, the trial court sentenced defendant to two concurrent terms of natural life in prison, in accordance with the terms of his plea agreement. Defendant was then transported to Nebraska to serve his sentences.

[21]   In March 2002, defendant, through his defense counsel, filed motions to withdraw his guilty plea and appoint new counsel. Following an April 2002 nonevidentiary hearing on the motions, the trial court ordered defense counsel to file (1) a certificate under Supreme Court Rule 604(d) (188 Ill. 2d R. 604(d)) and (2) an amended motion to appoint new counsel containing defendant's signature. The court also granted defense counsel permission to file an amended motion to withdraw defen-dant's guilty plea.

[22]   Later in April 2002, defense counsel filed amended motions to withdraw defendant's guilty plea and appoint new counsel. Attached to the motions were (1) a letter signed by defendant, stating that he did not receive effective assistance of counsel during guilty plea proceedings, and (2) a Rule 604(d) certificate signed by defense counsel. In May 2002, the trial court appointed new counsel to represent defendant on the motion to withdraw his guilty plea.

[23]   In August 2002, defendant, through his newly appointed counsel, filed a second-amended motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The motion alleged that (1) defendant did not knowingly and voluntarily enter his guilty plea because he lacked the mental capacity to do so due to lack of sleep; (2) he did not knowingly waive his right to a jury trial; (3) he was not properly advised that under Nebraska law, his life sentence was subject to parole; (4) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to follow up on his November 2001 motion seeking medical treatment; and (5) the trial court failed to properly admonish him regarding the procedure to be followed in sentencing him to death. Attached to the motion was defendant's affidavit, in which he averred ...


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