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People v. Mata

December 9, 2004

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
BERNINA MATA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Boone County. No. 96-CF-110. Honorable Gerald F. Grubb, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Gilleran Johnson

PUBLISHED

Following a jury trial, the defendant, Bernina Mata, was convicted of first degree murder. The same jury found the defendant eligible for the death penalty and determined there were no mitigating factors sufficient to preclude the imposition of that sentence. Subsequently, the trial court sentenced the defendant to death. The defendant directly appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, raising nine various contentions. On January 11, 2003, former Governor George Ryan commuted the defendant's death sentence to a term of natural life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Upon her appeal being transferred to this court, the defendant filed a motion requesting to withdraw eight of her contentions. We grant this motion. The defendant's sole remaining contention is that she is entitled to a new sentencing hearing because the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she committed the murder in a cold, calculated, and premeditated manner. Because this is her only contention, we dismiss the appeal as moot.

An appellate issue is moot when it is abstract or presents no justiciable controversy. People v. Blaylock, 202 Ill. 2d 319, 325 (2002). An issue can become moot if circumstances change during the pendency of an appeal that prevent the reviewing court from being able to render effectual relief. People v. Jackson, 199 Ill. 2d 286, 294 (2002). It is well settled in Illinois that any and all issues raised concerning a defendant's commuted death sentence are moot. People v. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d 194, 208 (2004); People v. Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d 403, 463 (2003); People v. Watson, 347 Ill. App. 3d 181, 186-87 (2004).

The Governor's power to pardon flows from both the United States and Illinois Constitutions. People ex rel. Johnson v. Murphy, 257 Ill. 564, 566 (1913). Specifically, our Illinois Constitution provides that "[t]he Governor may grant reprieves, commutations and pardons, after conviction, for all offenses on such terms as he thinks proper." Ill. Const. 1970, art. V, §12. The pardoning power of the Governor cannot be controlled by acts of either the courts or the legislature. Watson, 347 Ill. App. 3d at 186. The Governor's pardoning power can be controlled only by the Governor's conscience and sense of public duty. Watson, 347 Ill. App. 3d at 186. Simply put, the Governor's pardoning power is essentially unreviewable. People ex rel. Madigan v. Snyder, 208 Ill. 2d 457, 480 (2004); Watson, 347 Ill. App. 3d at 186.

Our Illinois Supreme Court has explained the effect of a commutation on a petitioner as follows:

"The petitioner is in the penitentiary not by virtue of any sentence. The sentence was done away with by the commutation. The punishment he is now undergoing is by the command of the Governor ***." Murphy, 257 Ill. at 566.

Under Illinois law, a commuted defendant is no longer imprisoned by virtue of any judicially imposed sentence. Murphy, 257 Ill. at 566; Watson, 347 Ill. App. 3d at 186. Once the Governor commutes a defendant's sentence, the punishment the defendant serves is by command of the Governor. Murphy, 257 Ill. at 566; Watson, 347 Ill. App. 3d at 186. In other words, a commutation removes the judicially imposed sentence and replaces it with a lesser, executively imposed sentence. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; People v. Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d 403, 463 (2003). Such an executively imposed sentence is not reviewable by the courts. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Watson, 347 Ill. App. 3d at 186-87. Indeed, the judiciary may not infringe upon the Governor's commutation power by reviewing his decision to commute a defendant's sentence. People ex rel. Smith v. Jenkins, 325 Ill. 372, 374 (1927).

In this case, former Governor Ryan commuted the defendant's sentence of death to one of life imprisonment without parole. This executively imposed sentence is unreviewable by this court. Because the defendant's sole contention concerns the propriety of her sentence, the defendant's appeal is moot. We must therefore dismiss the appeal.

The special concurrence describes the majority analysis as limited because it does not relate the fact that the defendant requested a commutation. It does not relate this fact because, although the State claims in its brief that the defendant applied for a commutation, this fact is not supported by the record. On January 10, 2003, Governor Ryan announced that he was granting "blanket clemency" to all inmates who had been sentenced to death. People ex rel. Madigan v. Snyder, 208 Ill. 2d 457, 462 (2004). Governor Ryan commuted the sentences of more than 160 inmates, including those who had not sought commutations. Snyder, 208 Ill. 2d at 463. The special concurrence's assumption that the defendant requested a commutation is improper. It is very well possible that the defendant received a commutation without having requested one.

Nevertheless, whether or not the defendant requested a commutation, her appeal is still moot because her sentence is now an executively imposed sentence. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463. The facts in Evans and Rissley were very similar to the case at hand. Like the defendant here, the defendants in both Evans and Rissley received commuted sentences of life imprisonment when Governor Ryan granted his "blanket clemency." Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463. It is unclear whether the defendants in those cases had actually applied for commutations. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 409. Like the instant defendant, the Evans and Rissley defendants may have been granted commutations without having requested them. On appeal, the defendants raised challenges concerning their sentences. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463.

The supreme court found those challenges to be moot. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463. The reasoning of the supreme court in Evans and Rissley was simple and succinct. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463. A commutation removes a judicially imposed sentence and replaces it with a lesser, executively imposed sentence. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463. As such, a commutation renders a defendant's sentencing challenges moot. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463. The supreme court placed no emphasis on whether the Evans and Rissley defendants applied for the commutations that they were granted. Evans, 209 Ill. 2d at 208; Rissley, 206 Ill. 2d at 463. The analysis employed by our supreme court is sound.

The special concurrence ignores and rejects the reasoning of the lllinois Supreme Court, instead advancing its own estoppel theory, which it gratuitously supports with a passage from the poet Robert Frost and a civil case not pertinent to a criminal defendant charged with murder. In doing so, the special concurrence ignores stare decisis, a long-standing principle of American jurisprudence. Briefly stated, stare decisis is the policy of the court to stand by precedent. See People v. Mitchell, 189 Ill. 2d 312, 363 (2000) (Freeman, J., dissenting, joined by Harrison, C.J., and McMorrow, J.). The "law by which men are governed should be fixed, definite, and known, and that, when the law is declared by [a] court of competent jurisdiction authorized to construe it, such declaration, in absence of ...


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