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U.S. EX REL. WHEELER v. WALLS

January 5, 2005.

United States of America ex rel. WILLIE WHEELER, Petitioner,
v.
JONATHAN WALLS, Warden, Jacksonville Correctional Center, Respondent.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOAN H. LEFKOW, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Petitioner Willie Wheeler ("Wheeler") was convicted at a bench trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, of two counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. The court sentenced Wheeler to prison terms of ten and seven years, to run concurrently. In his petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Wheeler claims that the trial judge's questioning of a "critical" defense witness at a time when Wheeler's counsel was not present violated his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. For the reasons stated below, the court denies his petition.

I. Standard of Review

  Pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), this court must deny Wheeler's petition for a writ of habeas corpus with respect to any claim adjudicated on the merits in a state court unless the state court's decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); Lindh v. Murphy, 96 F.3d 856, 879 (7th Cir. 1996), rev'd on other grounds, 521 U.S. 320 (1997). A state court's decision is contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent "if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law" or "if the state court confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to [it]." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000). A state court's decision is an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law "if the state court identifies the correct governing legal rule from [the] Court's cases but unreasonably applies it to the facts of a particular prisoner's case" or "if the state court either unreasonably extends a legal principle from [Court] precedent to a new context where it should not apply or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply." Id.

  When a case falls under § 2254(d)(1)'s "contrary to" clause, this court reviews the state court decision de novo to determine the legal question of what is clearly established law as determined by the Supreme Court and whether the state court decision is "contrary to" that precedent. When a case falls under the "unreasonable application of" clause of § 2254(d)(1), however, the court defers to a reasonable state court decision. Anderson v. Cowan, 227 F.3d 893, 896-97 (7th Cir. 2000). In other words, the court reviews core issues of federal law de novo. Lindh, 96 F.3d at 877. When confronted with mixed questions of law and fact (i.e., whether a state court's holding involved an "unreasonable application" of clearly established Supreme Court precedent), the court also applies a de novo standard but "with a grant of deference to any reasonable state court decision." Anderson, 227 F.3d at 897. A state court satisfies this reasonableness standard if its application is "at least minimally consistent with the facts and circumstances of the case." Spreitzer v. Peters, 114 F.3d 1435, 1442 (7th Cir. 1997).

  II. Background

  A. Procedural History

  Following a bench trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County in 2000, Wheeler was convicted of two counts of possession of a controlled substance (cocaine and heroin), with intent to deliver. He was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of ten and seven years respectively. Wheeler appealed his conviction to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that the trial judge's questioning of a "critical" defense witness at a time when Wheeler's counsel was not present denied him of his right to the effective assistance of counsel, and that the judge abandoned his role as an impartial arbiter and assumed the role of an advocate. On June 20, 2002, the appellate court affirmed Wheeler's conviction and sentence. People v. Wheeler, No. 1-00-2759, slip op. (Ill.App. 1st Dist. 2002). On October 2, 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court denied Wheeler's petition for leave to appeal.

  B. Facts

  When considering a habeas petition, the court must presume that the state courts' factual determinations are correct unless the petitioner rebuts the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Todd v. Schomig, 283 F.3d 842, 846 (7th Cir. 2002). Wheeler has not presented clear and convincing evidence to rebut this presumption. Thus, the court relies on the Illinois Appellate Court's recitation of the facts. Wheeler, No. 1-00-2759, at 1-6.

  On March 6, 1999, approximately six Chicago police officers executed a search warrant at an apartment at 8100 South Drexel Avenue in Chicago. Officer Nicholas Zavolokoff testified that, upon entering the apartment, he saw Wheeler walking out of a bedroom and a woman, later identified as Wheeler's fiancée Cherise Walls, standing in an open kitchen. Zavolokoff asked Wheeler if he resided in the apartment, and Wheeler responded "yes." Zavolokoff showed Wheeler the search warrant and searched Wheeler's person. He recovered three house keys, two of which fit back doors to the apartment, a payroll check from J.P.C. Industries, Inc., payable to Willie Wheeler at 8100 South Drexel, and $290 in currency. In response to questions from the officers, Wheeler stated that he had a nine millimeter pistol under his mattress in the bedroom and that there were no narcotics in the apartment.

  Zavolokoff and another officer then searched the bedroom that Zavolokoff had seen Wheeler exiting. The officers found a loaded nine millimeter pistol under the mattress and an Uzi assault rifle with three clips in a gun case under the bed. They also recovered an open cardboard box on the night stand containing a plastic bag of white powder the officers suspected to be heroin, a bag of a substance the officers suspected to be crack cocaine, several plastic bags, two plastic bottles, a digital gram scale, and an electric grinder with white powder residue. They also found nine boxes of live ammunition in the closet. Zavolokoff testified that during the search of the bedroom, he observed both men's and women's clothing.

  Zavolokoff then placed Wheeler under arrest and told him about the items found in the bedroom. According to Zavolokoff, Wheeler stated that "the crack cocaine was his, the heroin was not, the nine millimeter was his, and the Uzi was not." At the police station, Wheeler told police where he had purchased the nine millimeter and the crack cocaine and again denied owning the assault rifle.

  At Wheeler's bench trial, the parties stipulated that a forensic chemist would testify that he tested the substances recovered from the apartment. One bag weighed 123 grams and tested positive for cocaine. The ...


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