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Sturgeon v. Chandler

January 13, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 05 C 4960-George W. Lindberg, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sykes, Circuit Judge.


Before WOOD, SYKES, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

Gregory Sturgeon pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. He unsuccessfully pursued a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, a direct appeal, and a full round of post-conviction proceedings in Illinois state court, and then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, claiming violations of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of trial and appellate counsel. His claims center on the question of his entitlement to a hearing on the issue of his competency. The district court denied the writ but granted a certificate of appealability on the due-process claim. We later expanded the certificate to include Sturgeon's claims for ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel.

We affirm. The record did not raise a bona fide doubt as to Sturgeon's mental fitness. To the contrary, four examining doctors declared him competent notwithstanding his history of mental illness and use of psychotropic medication. Accordingly, the decision of the Illinois Appellate Court affirming the denial of post-conviction relief was neither an unreasonable determination of the facts nor an unreasonable application of federal law.

I. Background

Sturgeon was charged in June 1994 with beating and raping a woman on an elevated train platform in Evanston, Illinois. Two years later he pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated sexual assault and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. During the protracted pretrial proceedings, Sturgeon's competency to stand trial was evaluated by four court-appointed doctors. The first ordered evaluation came immediately after counsel was appointed; it could not be completed, however, because Sturgeon told the doctor that he did not want to participate in the examination without first talking to his lawyer. At his next court appearance, Sturgeon told Judge Robert Nix that he would give the court "fifty million dollars" if the court would order a "legal injection."

Judge Nix ordered another competency evaluation and appointed Dr. Stafford Henry, who concluded after a clinical examination that Sturgeon was fit to stand trial.

In October 1994 Sturgeon appeared before Judge Marcia Orr and announced that he wanted to plead guilty and had instructed counsel to begin plea negotiations with the prosecutor. However, Sturgeon's counsel first asked the court to order another fitness evaluation based on Sturgeon's apparent obsession with lethal injection (not an applicable penalty) and his willingness to plead guilty no matter what sentence might result. Judge Orr questioned whether a new evaluation was necessary but ordered one anyway; the judge also subpoenaed Sturgeon's records from the Illinois Department of Mental Health. After reviewing the mental-health records and conducting a new clinical evaluation, Dr. Henry reported that Sturgeon had a history of hearing voices (especially when under the influence of drugs and alcohol) but was presently taking medication (Haldol) and was "alert, oriented and superficially cooperative." The doctor noted, however, that Sturgeon was not completely forthright in answering questions about his history. Regardless, Sturgeon understood the nature, purpose, and details of the court proceedings against him, and Dr. Henry again concluded he was competent to stand trial as long as he continued to take his medication.

Sturgeon's odd in-court behavior continued throughout the next few months. At one point he announced that he was responsible for the "O.J. Simpson" murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Judge Daniel Jordan granted defense counsel's request for a third psychiatric exam, this time conducted by Dr. Roni Seltzberg. Before her evaluation, Dr. Seltzberg reviewed 12 different sets of mental-health records from Sturgeon's file. Like Dr. Henry, she reported that Sturgeon was "alert and oriented" and had good understanding of the particulars of the court proceedings against him. She noted that Sturgeon suffered from polysubstance dependence and was HIV positive, and diagnosed him with a personality disorder and a psychotic disorder "in remission with medication." On the basis of her review of his medical records and her clinical examination, Dr. Seltzberg declared Sturgeon fit to stand trial.*fn1

At the next hearing, Sturgeon's counsel refused to stipulate to Dr. Seltzberg's findings and asked the court to schedule a hearing at which the doctor could be cross-examined. The court instead ordered yet another fitness evaluation. Conducted by Dr. Dawna Gutzmann, this examination was only slightly different from the previous three. Sturgeon told Dr. Gutzmann that he had stopped taking his medication because he didn't like the side effects but was nevertheless "doing fine." Dr. Gutzmann found "no evidence of hallucinations" and stated that Sturgeon's reasoning, judgment, and impulse control were all intact. Sturgeon knew the details of his case and the nature of the court proceedings against him.

Dr. Gutzmann concluded Sturgeon was competent to proceed.

Following the return of Dr. Gutzmann's report, Sturgeon's counsel advised the court that Sturgeon was prepared to plead guilty. Before proceeding, however, counsel asked the court to appoint a doctor to evaluate whether Sturgeon had been competent to understand his Miranda warnings when being questioned by police. Dr. Stipes-the first court-appointed doctor-conducted this evaluation. Sturgeon was taking Haldol and Cogentin as of the time of this examination, and Dr. Stipes reported that he was oriented, cooperative, and generally coherent. Based on his review of his own prior report and those of the other doctors, as well as the police report and a clinical examination, Dr. Stipes opined that Sturgeon was competent to understand his Miranda rights when he was interviewed by police. A change-of-plea hearing was scheduled.

At the guilty-plea hearing, the prosecutor and Sturgeon's counsel agreed that the psychiatric reports generally found Sturgeon competent to proceed as long as he remained on medication. Judge Nix confirmed that Sturgeon had taken his medication before coming to court. The judge then accepted Sturgeon's guilty pleas to two counts of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced him to 45 years in prison. A few weeks later, Sturgeon moved to withdraw his guilty pleas, claiming he was not in his "right mind" when he entered them. The motion was denied, and Sturgeon's convictions were affirmed on direct appeal. His subsequent motion for ...

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