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United States ex rel Griffith v. Hulick

November 12, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elaine E. Bucklo United States District Judge


Evan Griffith, a thirty-nine year old man who has served over twenty-three years of a natural life sentence for a crime he committed in 1985, two months after his sixteenth birthday, brings a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Mr. Griffith is incarcerated at the Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Illinois, where Donald Hulick is the warden. For the reasons discussed below, I grant Mr. Griffith's petition.


A. Facts

Because factual determinations made by state courts are presumed to be correct for the purpose of federal habeas petitions, Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 324 (2003), I base my account of the material facts on People v. Griffith, 334 Ill.App.3d 98 (Ill. App. Ct. 2002) ("Griffith"), in which the Illinois Appellate Court---the highest state court to decide Mr. Griffith's claims on the merits---upheld his conviction and sentence. Where helpful, I also include additional, uncontroverted facts gleaned from my review of the trial record.

On May 11, 1985, sixteen-year-old Evan Griffith, who had been homeless for several months after running away from brutal abuse in his parents' home, awoke to find forty-nine-year-old Leroi Shanks masturbating him. Shanks was a former neighbor of Mr. Griffith's, and Mr. Griffith occasionally stayed with him when he needed a place to sleep for the night, as he had on the night preceding Shanks's death.

It was not the first time Shanks had engaged in sexual contact with Mr. Griffith. On at least one previous occasion, Shanks had fondled and performed oral sex on him. Mr. Griffith did not invite or want a sexual relationship with Shanks, and he had told Shanks as much. Desperate and alone, however, he let Shanks touch him in exchange for a place to sleep.

On the morning of May 11, 1985, however, Mr. Griffith rebuffed Shanks. Shanks tried to force Mr. Griffith to perform oral sex on Shanks but Mr. Griffith managed to push Shanks away. Shanks became angry. He cursed at Mr. Griffith and raised his fist, but he did not strike Mr. Griffith. Shanks left the apartment, telling Mr. Griffith to be gone by the time he returned.

After Shanks left, Mr. Griffith began drinking a bottle of wine that Shanks kept on his dresser. He thought about how Shanks had hurt him and decided to hurt Shanks in return by stealing the money Mr. Griffith believed was in a safe Shanks kept in a closet. Mr. Griffith found a hammer and chisel, which he used to chisel a hole into the top of the safe. It took about an hour. When he opened the safe, he found it was empty.

As Mr. Griffith was preparing to leave the apartment, Shanks came home. Mr. Griffith panicked. He thought that if Shanks saw that he had broken into the safe, he would call the police, or worse, try to hurt Mr. Griffith in some way.

As Shanks approached, Mr. Griffith grabbed the hammer he had used to break open the safe and hit Shanks with it to try and "knock him out" so that he could escape. But Shanks remained conscious. Mr. Griffith hit Shanks with the hammer a few more times. Mr. Griffith then stabbed Shanks.

As Shanks lay on the floor, Mr. Griffith gathered his belongings to leave. He saw that Shanks had a wallet in his back pocket. Mr. Griffith took the wallet out of Shanks's pocket, pulled out $124 dollars, dropped the wallet on the floor, and left. Other than the money in Shanks's wallet and a prescription pill bottle belonging to Shanks (but apparently containing Mr. Griffith's own pills), Mr. Griffith did not take any property from Shanks's person or apartment.

Shanks later died of his wounds. Mr. Griffith was arrested on May 22, 1985 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Mr. Griffith originally pled guilty to Shanks's murder and was sentenced in 1986 to 35 years' imprisonment. In 1997, however, his guilty plea was found not voluntary, his conviction reversed, and a trial ordered.

In 1999---more than 14 years after the events at issue--Mr. Griffith went to trial in the Circuit Court of Cook County, charged with intentional or knowing first degree murder, felony murder, and armed robbery. Following a six-day trial, the jury convicted Mr. Griffith of felony murder and armed robbery.*fn1 The trial court sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

1. The Trial

The State's evidence consisted largely of Mr. Griffith's own statements to acquaintances and authorities in the days and weeks following the killing. Three of the State's witnesses testified that Mr. Griffith had told them that he killed Shanks for money.

Mr. Griffith testified in his own defense. He did not deny killing Shanks. He asserted, however, that his violence against Shanks was driven by his fear that Shanks would kill him, hurt him, or sexually abuse him upon discovering that he had broken open Shanks's safe, not by an intent to rob Shanks.

Mr. Griffith testified that between the ages of eight and fifteen, he suffered persistent physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his father, as well as sexual abuse at the hands of his older brother. Mr. Griffith recounted that he was born in Belize, where he spent an uneventful early childhood in the care of his grandparents, until his parents---who had moved to the United States when Mr. Griffith was a toddler--sent for him to join them when Mr. Griffith was about eight. Beginning several months after his arrival at his parents' home in Pennsylvania, and continuing until Mr. Griffith left the family home for the last time shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Mr. Griffith suffered repeated abuse.

Mr. Griffith testified that at times, his father beat him several times a week for violating the strict rules he imposed, such as requiring Mr. Griffith to return home within minutes after school was dismissed for the day. Over time, Mr. Griffith testified, the beatings escalated in severity, and were particularly violent when his father was drunk. Once, Mr. Griffith's father broke his own hand striking Mr. Griffith. Mr. Griffith was frequently left bruised and bleeding as a result of his father's blows, which were sometimes meted out with the aid of a special whipping device his father fashioned out of a fan belt and a pipe. Mr. Griffith recalled one occasion on which his parents locked him in a basement bathroom alone for an entire day while they were at work.

While living at his parents' house, Mr. Griffith also suffered sexual abuse by his older brother. When Mr. Griffith told his parents about his brother's abuse, Mr. Griffith was beaten by his father. At trial, several of Mr. Griffith's family members, as well as a local police officer called to testify on Mr. Griffith's behalf, corroborated various aspects of Mr. Griffith's account of his abuse.

Regarding the events of May 11, 1985, Mr. Griffith testified that he "blacked out" for a portion of his altercation with Shanks and has no memory of most of it. He recalls, however, that as Shanks approached Mr. Griffith, who was kneeling in front of the open safe, Shanks had a look in his eye that reminded Mr. Griffith of how his father would look when he beat him.

Mr. Griffith said he recalls hitting Shanks several times with the hammer. After that, however, his memory fails. His next recollection is of "coming to" when he felt a sharp pain in his little finger and looked down to find that he had cut himself with a heavy-bladed kitchen knife. He realized then that he had been stabbing Shanks.

Mr. Griffith testified that it did not occur to him to take money from Shanks's wallet until after Shanks lay wounded on the floor, when Mr. Griffith saw the wallet hanging out of Shanks's back pocket.

Dr. Robert Chapman, an expert in forensic psychiatry, testified on Mr. Griffith's behalf. Dr. Chapman stated that Mr. Griffith suffered from several chronic mental disorders at the time he killed Shanks. Among these was post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by Mr. Griffith's history of physical and sexual abuse. One symptom of Mr. Griffith's PTSD was that it caused him to experience a heightened "fight or flight" response to stressful triggers bearing a resemblance to Mr. Griffith's past trauma. Dr. Chapman opined that Mr. Griffith's PTSD caused him to experience more of a threat than an ordinary individual would perceive in similar circumstances.

Dr. Chapman also testified that Mr. Griffith suffered from acute stress disorder (ASD). Dr. Chapman explained that ASD is similar to PTSD, but that it is an acute reaction to a particularly stressful event, with symptoms that are short-lived and severe. These symptoms can include amnesia and a "dissociative reaction," in which behavior can become automatic and repetitive. Dr. Chapman opined that Mr. Griffith's ASD explained the excessive and overly aggressive nature of Mr. Griffith's response to Shanks's unexpected return to the apartment, as well as Mr. Griffith's blackout.

The State presented its own psychiatric experts in rebuttal. The thrust of their collective testimony was to challenge Dr. Chapman's opinion that Mr. Griffith suffered from PTSD in May of 1985, and to assert that even if Mr. Griffith had PTSD, it would not have caused him to lose contact with reality or cause him to mistake Shanks for his father or brother.

More than half of Mr. Griffith's trial was devoted to evidence of his mental state at the time he stabbed Shanks, including evidence of his chronic and acute mental disorders. In its closing in rebuttal arguments, the prosecution repeatedly told the jury that it should disregard that evidence, or "throw it out the window" because it was "completely irrelevant" to the charge of felony murder. Laura Morask, the lead prosecutor, summarized: "You can take the last five days and just throw it away. There is no abuse, there is no post traumatic stress disorder. None of that is applicable to felony murder. You may not consider it. You may, may, may not."

The trial court instructed the jury to begin its deliberations on the murder counts by considering first the charge of felony murder. The court instructed:

To sustain the charge of felony murder, Type A, the State must prove the following propositions: First that the defendant performed the acts which caused the death of Leroi Shanks; and second, when the defendant did so, he was committing the offense of armed robbery.

If you find from your consideration of all the evidence that each one of these proposition has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, you should find the defendant guilty of felony murder, Type A, and your deliberations should end.

Shortly less than five hours later, the jury returned a verdict of ...

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