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United States ex rel Hernandez v. Hulick

November 3, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert W. Gettleman


Petitioner Rickey*fn1 Hernandez has brought a pro se petition for habeas corpus relief pursuant to the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254, seeking to overturn his state conviction for first degree murder. For the reasons set forth below, the petition is denied. BACKGROUND*fn2

In the early morning hours of December 12, 1997, Jeffrey Stevens answered a knock at the door of the apartment he sometimes shared with his on-and-off girlfriend, Rhonda Sproats, the couple's two children, and Rhonda's daughter from a previous relationship. He was met with a single gunshot to his left cheek, fired at point-blank range. Stevens fell to the floor immediately and died within hours. On March 14, 2001, following a four-day jury trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, petitioner was convicted of first degree murder for Stevens's killing. A short summary of the evidence presented at trial follows:

Rhonda's mother, Betty Sproat,*fn3 testified that after years of observing signs that Stevens physically abused her daughter, she decided to take matters into her own hands in October of 1997. Betty decided to have Stevens beaten up, and she and her husband Ken Sproat*fn4 enlisted petitioner--whom they had met at a ceramics class--to do the job. Betty testified that after discussing the matter with petitioner's girlfriend Lola--also a student in the ceramics class--Betty and Ken went to petitioner's apartment on two separate occasions to discuss having Stevens beaten. At the conclusion of the second meeting, petitioner said he would "take care of it."

A week or so later, Ken had a change of heart and decided to call off the plan. Ken told petitioner to stand down. In the meantime, however, Betty learned that Stevens had also begun abusing Rhonda's eldest child. Betty was fed up. Betty decided not only to reinstate the plan but to up the ante: Betty arranged another meeting with petitioner, and this time she told petitioner she wanted Stevens dead. Betty testified that petitioner agreed to kill Stevens in exchange for "whatever is in your heart." After the killing, however, petitioner demanded that Betty pay him $30,000. Betty stated that over the course of their dealings, she and her husband paid petitioner $150, then $1200, then $5000 (in a sham purchase of a car), all in exchange for killing Stevens.

Several other witnesses also testified for the State: Ken Sproats generally corroborated Betty's testimony about the agreement with petitioner and the payments Betty and Ken made to him. Darrell Tubbs*fn5 testified that he was neighbors with petitioner in the months leading up to Stevens's killing. On the night of December 12, 1997, he accompanied petitioner to Stevens's apartment, knocked on the door and asked Stevens to open up, then saw petitioner shoot Stevens in the face. Lola testified that she was present when Betty and Ken came to petitioner's apartment (which she shared with him at the time) to discuss beating Stevens, and that she witnessed several conversations among Betty, Ken, petitioner, and Tubbs regarding the plan. Julie Jones,*fn6 Tubbs's fiancé, testified that on the night of December 11, 1997, petitioner, Tubbs, and Fernando Davila*fn7 together left the apartment she and Tubbs shared; that the three men returned to the apartment about an hour later and proceeded to clean a gun with alcohol and cotton swabs; and that the following day, she observed red traces she believed may have been blood on the rim of the alcohol bottle they had used. Two police officers testified regarding the investigation of the crime. The State concluded its evidence with the stipulated testimony of several additional witnesses. Petitioner did not testify at trial.

The jury found petitioner guilty of first degree murder. After his conviction, petitioner moved unsuccessfully for a new trial. On May 24, 2001, petitioner was sentenced to an extended term of 80 years' imprisonment. He then appealed both his conviction and sentence, raising the following claims: (1) the trial court violated Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), when it heard evidence relating to a pending attempted murder charge at sentencing; (2) the trial court denied him the right to an impartial jury when it failed to dismiss a tainted juror; (3) the trial court erroneously admitted certain hearsay statements into evidence; (4) the trial court erred in giving an Illinois pattern jury instruction on circumstantial evidence; (5) the State failed to prove petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; and (6) petitioner was denied effective assistance of counsel because (a) at trial, his attorney failed to cross-examine certain State witnesses, and (b) at sentencing, his attorney failed to present any witnesses or evidence in mitigation.

The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed petitioner's conviction and sentence in People v. Hernandez, No. 1-01-2023 (Ill. App. Ct. 2003) (undated order) ("Hernandez"). Petitioner then filed a petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, which was denied on June 4, 2003.

On November 5, 2003, petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, petitioner claimed that his attorney coerced him not to testify and failed to retain mental health experts to evaluate his mental capacity. The trial court dismissed the post-conviction petition as frivolous on December 12, 2003. Petitioner appealed the dismissal but raised unrelated issues on appeal. In the Appellate Court, petitioner claimed that he been improperly convicted on multiple counts for a single murder (intentional and knowing murder), and he sought to vacate the knowing murder conviction. Petitioner additionally sought to correct the mittimus to reflect that conviction.

In a summary order of June 14, 2006, the Appellate Court held that petitioner had been properly convicted of only one count of murder. See People v. Hernandez, No. 1-05-1791, at 1 (Ill. App. Ct. 2006). Because the Appellate Court agreed, however, that the mittimus erroneously reflected a two-count conviction, it amended the mittimus. See id., at 2. It does not appear that petitioner sought further appeal of the issues raised in his post-conviction proceedings.*fn8

Petitioner now seeks habeas relief in this court, alleging the same six claims he asserted on direct appeal. He also reasserts the ineffective assistance of counsel claims he raised in his post-conviction petition but did not appeal. For the reasons explained below, none of petitioner's claims entitles him to a writ of habeas corpus.


Under the AEDPA, a federal court may not grant a state prisoner habeas relief unless the adjudication by the highest state court to address the petitioner's claims on the merits, "(1) resulted in a decision that 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." Smiley v. Thurmer, 542 F.3d 574, at 580 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)). Accordingly, federal courts are not authorized to grant habeas relief based on errors of state law, see Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67 (1991) ("We have stated many times that 'federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law.'") (internal citations omitted); Kurzawa v. Jordan, 146 F.3d 435, 440 (7th Cir. 1998). In addition, factual determinations made by state courts must be objectively unreasonable--not merely erroneous--to warrant habeas relief. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 411 (2000).

AEDPA also requires state prisoners to exhaust state remedies before seeking federal habeas relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b); see also O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 843-45 (1999). Inherent in the exhaustion obligation is the petitioner's duty to provide the state courts a full and fair opportunity to review all of his or her federal claims. See Malone v. Walls, 538 F.3d 744, 753 (7th Cir. 2008). On habeas review, then, a federal court may only entertain the merits of constitutional claims that were presented throughout "one complete round of the State's established appellate review process." O'Sullivan, at 845. All other federal claims are procedurally ...

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