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People v. Lawton

October 7, 2004

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLEE,
v.
GARY LAWTON, APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rarick

PUBLISHED

Docket No. 95802-Agenda 3-January 2004.

Gary Lawton was declared a sexually dangerous person and committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections pursuant to the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act (725 ILCS 205/0.01 et seq. (West 2002)). He subsequently petitioned the circuit court of Pike County to obtain relief from that judgment pursuant to section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-1401 (West 2002)). As grounds for his petition, Lawson argued, among other things, that he had been denied the effective assistance of counsel. Following a hearing, the circuit court granted Lawton's petition. The appellate court reversed. 335 Ill. App. 3d 1085. We granted Lawton's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a). For the reasons that follow, we now affirm the appellate court's judgment.

The events giving rise to this appeal began in February of 1998, when Lawton was charged in separate cases with predatory criminal sexual assault of a child (see 720 ILCS 5/12-14.1(a)(1) (West 2002)) for allegedly molesting two four-year-old girls at his church. Following preliminary hearings conducted the following month, the trial court found probable cause to believe that Lawton had committed those offenses.

Lawton, through counsel, subsequently filed a series of pretrial motions, including motions for discovery, a bill of particulars, suppression of evidence, and determination of the competency of witnesses to testify. While those motions were pending, the State initiated civil proceedings against Lawton under the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act. That statute permits the State to seek an involuntary, indeterminate commitment in lieu of a criminal prosecution when a defendant is charged with a criminal offense and is believed to be sexually dangerous. People v. Burns, 209 Ill. 2d 551, 553 (2004).

"Sexually dangerous persons" are defined by the law as "[a]ll persons suffering from a mental disorder, which mental disorder has existed for a period of not less than one year, immediately prior to the filing of the petition hereinafter provided for, coupled with criminal propensities to the commission of sex offenses, and who have demonstrated propensities toward acts of sexual assault or acts of sexual molestation of children ***." 725 ILCS 205/1.01 (West 2002).

Where, as here, the State petitions to have a person declared sexually dangerous, the trial court must appoint two psychiatrists to examine that person. 725 ILCS 205/4 (West 2002). In the case before us, the court appointed Dr. Phillip Bornstein and Dr. Joseph Bolden. Lawton, in turn, retained his own psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Lahmeyer. Lawton waived his right to have the matter heard by a jury, and a bench trial on the State's commitment petition followed.

During the trial, Dr. Bornstein testified for the State. Dr. Bornstein stated that Lawton did not suffer from any major psychological illness, but diagnosed him with "a personality disorder not otherwise specified" which first appeared when Lawton was 17 years old. Dr. Bornstein explained that, while Lawton did not exhibit all the traits of any one disorder, he did display significant antisocial, narcissistic, and histrionic traits which characterize "Cluster B" personality disorders as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to Dr. Bornstein, Cluster B disorders are consistent with sexual aggression and assault.

Much of Dr. Bornstein's diagnosis was based upon responses given by Lawton when Bornstein questioned him regarding his conviction in 1987 for sexually abusing his stepdaughter. The abuse underlying that conviction extended over several years, escalating from mere fondling when the girl was 9 to intercourse by the time she was 15. Dr. Bornstein found that Lawton minimized the extent of the abuse, describing it simply as consensual sex when the girl was a teen. Dr. Bornstein stated that Lawton's conduct and his subsequent rationalizations showed a lack of empathy and a degree of selfishness, as well as high levels of untruthfulness, deception, and denial. Dr. Bornstein acknowledged that the trial court ultimately would decide whether the defendant was a sexually dangerous person, but opined that Lawton fit the statutory definition of a sexually dangerous person. Dr. Bornstein then clarified his position. "What I really say," Bornstein testified, "is he meets the criteria for having a psychiatric disorder which is associated with the propensity to commit sexual offenses."

The State next called Dr. Bohlen. Dr. Bohlen testified that he diagnosed Lawton with pedophilia, which appeared years earlier when his stepdaughter was nine years old. This opinion was based partially upon Lawton's prolonged sexual abuse of his stepdaughter and partially upon the fact that Lawton currently availed himself of opportunities to be around young children at home while baby-sitting and at church. According to Dr. Bohlen, Lawton was evasive about his contact with young children at church, and he minimized and rationalized the contact he had with these children. Dr. Bohlen observed that Lawton initially denied being involved in any previous incidents of sexual abuse of children and admitted the 1987 conviction pertaining to his stepdaughter only after Dr. Bohlen advised him that he knew about the case. Even then, Lawton described the sexual abuse of his stepdaughter as a one-time occurrence.

Dr. Bohlen stated that he had examined the reports of the pending charges and found them highly credible. The specific information imparted by the children "would be impossible for them to dream up." Dr. Bohlen concluded that Lawton fit the statutory definition of a sexually dangerous person.

After Bohlen testified, the State asked the circuit court to take judicial notice of Lawton's 1987 conviction for sexually abusing his stepdaughter and of the two more recent charges of predatory criminal sexual assault of children which precipitated the proceedings then before the court. In response to the State's request, Lawton's attorney conceded that "the law provides that [the court] can consider for purposes of this hearing previous acts, previous convictions, so with respect to the Court taking judicial notice of that I don't have any objection." He then specified that he had no objection to the court reading the charges, the guilty plea, the judgment on conviction, and the sentence, but did not think it appropriate for the court to examine the facts of that case. Lawton's attorney further stated that he "can't quibble" with the court taking notice of the charges pending against his client for predatory criminal sexual assault.

The circuit court granted the State's motion to take judicial notice. Lawton then began presentation of his defense by calling as a witness Dr. Lahmeyer. Dr. Lahmeyer forcefully disputed Dr. Bornstein's diagnosis of a personality disorder not otherwise specified. According to Dr. Lahmeyer, "if you get into a diagnosis like NOS [not otherwise specified], approximately 50 percent of the people in this room would qualify for that; so that has the lowest validity and almost no clinical usefulness." Dr. Lahmeyer stated that neither the clinical interview he conducted nor the tests he performed on Lawton supported a diagnosis of a personality disorder. According to Lahmeyer, "[t]here is not one shred of evidence that he is suffering from [a] personality disorder of any type." Dr. Lahmeyer opined that Lawton was simply suffering from an adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features, "quite a lot of depression, quite a lot of anger and some suspiciousness," resulting from his arrest on the underlying charges and subsequent home confinement. Lahmeyer believed Lawton's adjustment disorder would dissipate when this case was resolved.

In Dr. Lahmeyer's view, Lawton had not previously suffered from any other mental disorder and did not meet the criteria for pedophilia. His assaults on his stepdaughter were mere incest. He had no sex offense convictions in the years following his abuse of his stepdaughter, he has a stable marriage, and he has lived in a house with several female minors without incident. Dr. Lahmeyer felt that this displayed "an amazing level of social functioning" inconsistent with pedophilia. Dr. Lahmeyer also questioned the veracity of the current allegations against Lawton and concluded that he did not fit the statutory definition of a sexually dangerous person.

Following Dr. Lahmeyer's testimony, Lawton also presented testimony from three parents for whom Lawton and his wife baby-sat. Those parents indicated that they had frequently left their children with Lawton and his wife, that they had spoken with their children regarding whether Lawton had ever done anything of a sexual nature with them, and that they would still trust Lawton to baby-sit their children without additional adult supervision.

Based on the evidence presented, the trial court determined that Dr. Bohlen's diagnosis of pedophilia was not supported. The court found, however that Lawton suffered from a mental disorder, as described by Dr. Bornstein; that the disorder had existed since at least 1987; and that the disorder was coupled with criminal propensities to commit sex offenses. Based on those findings, the court declared Lawton to be a sexually dangerous person and committed him to the custody of the Department of Corrections.

Lawton appealed. The appeal was brought by the same attorney who had represented him in the trial court. The sole claim advanced by the attorney was that the State had failed to adduce sufficient evidence to prove that Lawton suffered from a mental disorder.

The appellate court rejected that claim. It concluded that the testimony of Dr. Bornstein and Dr. Bohlen supported the trial court's finding that Lawton had a mental disorder. Noting that Lawton had not disputed and "basically concede[d] the presence of the other statutory elements required to support the trial court's ruling," the appellate court affirmed. People v. Lawton, 305 Ill. App. 3d 1123 (1999) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). Lawton subsequently petitioned this court for leave to appeal. His petition was denied. People v. Lawton, 185 Ill. 2d 649 (1999).

The following year, Lawton filed a petition in the circuit court of Pike County under section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure to obtain relief from the judgment entered against him in the foregoing case. Lawton proceeded pro se initially, but later retained an attorney who filed an amended section 2-1401 petition on his behalf.

Lawton's new lawyer, who was different than the one who had represented him at trial and on direct appeal, argued, inter alia, that Lawton's previous attorney had failed to provide him with effective assistance. Specifically, the new lawyer contended that Lawton's prior counsel had been ineffective for failing to properly challenge assertions allegedly made by the State's Attorney and accepted by the trial court "that proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or any proof at trial, was not required with respect to the `demonstrated propensities' element of the State's cause of action."

The State moved to dismiss Lawton's petition, arguing that the issues raised by Lawton, including his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, could not be raised in proceedings brought under section 2-1401. The trial court denied that motion, stating:

"I think there is a sufficient gist of a meritorious defense set forth in the petition ***. The best argument [for the State] is probably that under 1401 nowhere in the past has that section allowed the Court to address ineffective counsel. Nowhere has this Court found a case that says, however, if it is a 1401 petition that addresses a sexually dangerous person case is a person denied the right to ask for [ ]effective counsel. *** I agree with [defense counsel]'s arguments as it relates [sic] to this issue, that a post conviction petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act is not appropriate. *** That would be the appropriate place to *** address ineffective counsel. Since that's not available in this kind of a case because this case does involve the loss of liberty by the defendant in his housing for treatment under these `civil ...


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