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Figueroa v. Merchant

April 30, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber


Before the Court is Petitioner Miguel Figueroa's (hereinafter, "Petitioner") Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner asserts that the State of Illinois is confining him in violation of the United States Constitution because his publicly appointed trial and appellate counsel were ineffective, the State failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the cumulative effect of several errors rendered his trial unfair. For the following reasons, the Petition is denied.


On August 5, 1993, during a drug deal on Chicago's West Side, Petitioner shot and killed a man named Dmitry Rabin ("Rabin"). At Petitioner's subsequent trial and re-trial, the State's witnesses related the following facts:

Rabin and his associate, Xavier Burbano ("Burbano"), were drug dealers who had arranged through their broker, Alex Ojea ("Ojea"), to purchase a large supply of marijuana from Petitioner and his associate, Eduardo Estremera ("Estremera"). The parties first met at a carwash, but the sale fell through when Estremera pointed a gun at Burbano and accused Burbano of being a cop. Later that day, the parties reconvened at a gas station and then drove to a location outside of a church, where they all exited their vehicles. Petitioner was carrying a handgun. Rabin had brought a sawed-off shotgun to the meeting, but at some point Rabin had put the shotgun in the trunk of his car. When Ojea showed Burbano some of the marijuana, Burbano balked, saying that he and Rabin wanted "something better." Rabin and Burnbano then made to leave. At that point, Petitioner and Burbano were standing on the passenger's side of Rabin's car, while Rabin and Estremera were standing on the driver's side. Petitioner then asked which person was carrying the money. When Rabin responded that he, Rabin, was carrying it, Petitioner shot Rabin from across the car. Estremera then shot Rabin five or six times with a gun of his own.

The State's witnesses also testified that Rabin had been carrying $10,500.00 in $100 dollar bills; that Petitioner pulled something from Rabin's waistband after shooting him; that Rabin's body had no cash on it when the police arrived; and that officers later recovered $5,000.00 in $100 dollar bills from Petitioner's apartment.

Petitioner testified that he shot Rabin in self-defense. According to his testimony, right before the shooting, Estremera and Rabin had begun to argue intensely. Petitioner testified that he, Petitioner, pulled his gun when he saw Rabin reach for something in the car and start to swing around toward Petitioner. Petitioner testified that he shot at Rabin only out of fear that Rabin was trying to shoot him. According to Petitioner, he then ducked behind the car, hearing several more shots, ran to his car, and drove off after Estremera got in the passenger's side.

The jury at Petitioner's first trial convicted him of first degree murder but acquitted him of armed robbery. The Illinois Court of Appeals then reversed the murder conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. The jury at the re-trial again convicted Petitioner of first degree murder. Petitioner unsuccessfully appealed that conviction to the Illinois Court of Appeals, and the Illinois Supreme Court denied him leave to appeal. Petitioner then brought a post-conviction petition in the Circuit Court of Cook County, which summarily dismissed the petition. Petitioner appealed that decision to the Illinois Court of Appeals, at which time the Illinois State Appellate Defender withdrew its representation of Petitioner pursuant to Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551 (1987), because it believed an appeal would have been frivolous. After Petitioner filed a response to the Appellate Defender's Finley motion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court's dismissal of Petitioner's post-conviction petition, and the Illinois Supreme Court denied Petitioner leave to appeal that decision.


Section 2254 of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (the "AEDPA") entitles a prisoner to a writ of habeas corpus if the state court judgment underlying imprisonment violates the United States Constitution. 28 U.S.C. § 2254; see Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 375 (2000). To this end, a habeas petitioner must show that the state court decision: (1) was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and (2); see Ellsworth v. Levenhagen, 248 F.3d 634, 638 (7th Cir. 2001). Because Petitioner has invoked neither the "contrary to" test nor the "unreasonable factual determinations" test, the question before this Court is whether the various Illinois court decisions upholding Petitioner's conviction involved any unreasonable application of federal law. Specifically, Petitioner must show that "the state court's application of governing federal law is . . . not only erroneous, but objectively unreasonable." Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 5 (2003).

Petitioner claims that several aspects of the Illinois courts' decisions in his case satisfy this standard. He contends that his publicly appointed trial counsel was so ineffective as to deprive him of his Sixth Amendment rights because he failed to: (1) interview and produce two witnesses Petitioner contends would have supported his claim that the police unlawfully seized evidence used against him at trial; (2) secure records and documents to the same effect; and (3) petition the trial court to question the jury about the removed juror. Petitioner contends that his appellate counsel was likewise constitutionally ineffective by failing to: (1) investigate the removed juror, as well as that juror's effect on other jurors; (2) argue that the trial court should have questioned the jury about the removed juror; (3) raise several prosecutorial misconduct arguments; and (4) argue that the trial court erroneously admitted "other crimes" evidence, as well as several hearsay statements. Petitioner also contends that the state failed to sufficiently prove the intent element of his first-degree murder charge, and that the effect of cumulative errors in his trial rendered it unfair.

A. Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel

Petitioner argues that his imprisonment violates his Sixth Amendment right to counsel because the public defender appointed to represent him at trial was ineffective. To succeed on this claim, Petitioner must show that the Illinois courts applied the standard in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688, 694 (1984), in an "objectively unreasonable" manner. See Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 698-99 (2002). Under Strickland, Petitioner must show that: (1) counsel's conduct fell below "an objective standard of reasonableness," and (2) "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's incompetence, the result of the trial would have been different." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688 & 694. The first prong requires a showing that counsel "made errors so serious that [he] was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed . . . by the Sixth Amendment." Id. at 687. To this end, Petitioner must overcome strong presumptions that "counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance," and that "the challenged ...

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