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United States ex rel Stock v. Uchtman

March 31, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David H. Coar United States District Judge



Joseph Stock ("Stock" or "Petitioner") is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment pursuant to his conviction for first degree murder in the Illinois courts. Stock has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus (the "Petition") in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.*fn1 Stock claims that he was denied his Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause rights when an Illinois trial court limited his cross-examination of State's witness Alfonso Najera ("Najera"). Petitioner's cross-examination of Najera was limited when the trial court prevented him from confronting Najera at trial with a transcript of a recorded telephone conversation that had previously taken place between Najera and Petitioner. The Petition has been fully briefed and is before the court. For the reasons stated below, the Petition is respectfully denied.


A. Introduction*fn2

Petitioner is incarcerated at the Menard Correctional Center in the custody of warden Donald Gaetz. Petitioner is imprisoned pursuant to his conviction for first-degree murder, for which he was sentence to ninety years imprisonment. Docket Entry 1 at 1 (because of the large number of filings in this petition, documents are cited by docket entry number, hereinafter "D.E.").

Petitioner's trial concerned events that occurred on, and subsequent to, June 20, 1997, the day on which Connie Wagner ("Ms. Wagner") was found murdered in her Palatine, Illinois home. D.E. 1 at 8. Ms. Wagner's wrists had been tied with a telephone cord, and she had been stabbed over 180 times. D.E. 23 at 23. Ms. Wagner and Petitioner had dated for a few months prior to that day, but by June 1997 the relationship had deteriorated. D.E. 24, Ex. C at 2. On the evening before the murder, Ms. Wagner told Petitioner that she was moving to Texas. Id. Petitioner became angry and told Ms. Wagner that she would never make it to Texas. Id. On June 24, 1997, Petitioner called his friend Alfonso Najera ("Najera") and told him that he had killed Ms. Wagner because he was angry at her. Id.

At trial, the State argued that Petitioner copied Ms. Wagner's keys in order to gain entry to the house, killed Ms. Wagner, took clothes from Ms. Wagner's brother, and finally, took Ms. Wagner's car, as was evidenced by the presence of Petitioner's fingerprints inside the car when it was found later. D.E. 23 at 23. The State called Najera, who testified that Petitioner described murdering her by making stabbing motions. D.E. 23, Ex. C at 4. Najera also testified that Petitioner confessed to Ms. Wagner's murder when they spoke four days after the killing. D.E. 1 at 8; D.E. 23 at 7.

Petitioner remained silent at trial. D.E. 23, Ex. C at 2. However, Petitioner offered evidence that the day after the murder, he cooperated with the police and that the clothing he was wearing the day of the murder, which he gave to the police, tested negative for blood. Id. In terms of physical evidence, expert testimony established that the hair found under the victim's fingernail did not belong to Petitioner and that there were no signs the hair had been removed by force. Id. Petitioner's fingerprints were not found at the crime scene, id. at 3, nor were there any scratches or signs of struggle on Petitioner's body. Id. at 4. It was not disputed that in the months before the murder, the victim was spending large amounts of money on drugs and was in debt to her suppliers. Id. at 4-5.

Stock was convicted in the Circuit Court of Cook County of first-degree murder and sentenced to ninety years' imprisonment. D.E. 23 at 1.

B. Najera's Role During Investigation and Trial

Petitioner claims that "the State's case rested entirely on the testimony of Najera." D.E. 44 at 3. Indeed, in its Motion to Set a Trial Date, the State made clear that "[w]ithout [Najera's] testimony the State cannot go forward." Id.

Najera had not immediately gone to the police with information about Petitioner's supposed confession; rather, the police spoke with Najera from June to September 1997, and on September 4, 1997, Najera voluntarily visited the police station for several hours. D.E. 23, Ex. C at 4. While there, Najera signed a statement, written by a prosecutor, which contained statements Najera said Petitioner made about the murder. Id. at 4. The police then planned, with Najera's consent, to tape a telephone conversation between Najera and Petitioner, during which Najera agreed that he would attempt to get Petitioner to reveal his confession. Id. at 5-6. During the taped conversation, Najera did not directly mention the confession, but he made reference to it.*fn3 Id. at 6. The crux of the dispute was the following exchange between Stock and Najera:

[Petitioner]: I mean shit-you still believe me, don't you?

[Najera]: Yeah, I believe you, dude. I believe you, man. I just want to make sure that you didn't say something to anybody else and they come to court and then.

[Petitioner]: That what?

[Najera]: You didn't tell anybody else-you know what I'm saying? Cause they come to court and then I look like, you know.

[Petitioner]: Tell anybody what?

D.E. 44 at 22; see also D.E. 23, Ex. F at 428-433.

Prior to trial, the State filed a motion in limine arguing that the taped conversation between Mr. Najera and Petitioner was inadmissible hearsay and thus should be barred at trial. D.E. 1 at 9; D.E. 23 at 9; D.E. 44 at 2; see also D.E. 24, Ex. A at C-189. The parties argued the motion extensively. D.E. 23 at 9; D.E. 44 at 2. The State argued that its motion was supported by "well established Illinois evidentiary rules [which] provide that 'self-serving statements by an accused are inadmissible hearsay.'" D.E. 23 at 9 (citing People v. Patterson, 610 N.E.2d 16, 33 (Ill. 1992)). Petitioner argued that Najera's failure to directly mention the supposed previous confession during the taped conversation as well has his affirmation of Petitioner's exclamations of innocence were important impeachment evidence. D.E. 23 at 9. Petitioner contended that the "exchanges between Stock and Najera on that tape were not hearsay because the statements were not offered for their truth, but rather to impeach Najera by omission and by showing his failure to confirm that a confession took place when presented the opportunity to do so." D.E. 44 at 2; see also D.E. 1 at 9.

The trial judge granted the State's motion in limine to bar the tape evidence, ruling that Petitioner's statements in the phone conversation were "clearly hearsay" and thus inadmissible. D.E. 1 at 9; D.E. 23 at 9 (citing D.E. 23, Ex. F at 127); D.E. 44 at 2. In making its ruling, the trial court noted that Petitioner's argument-that the evidence was to be offered to impeach, and that thus was not hearsay-was "a good legal argument . . . [but was] not founded in any of the cases." D.E. 23, Ex. F at 128. However, the court stated that, despite this ruling, it would "allow counsel on cross examination of [Najera] to ask questions about a subsequent conversation with the defendant, and the fact that he never brought up the fact to the defendant that [the defendant] previously confessed on a specific date." D.E. 23, Ex. F at 129; see also D.E. 23 at 10. The judge continued that "[i]f Najera, in my opinion, opens the door by denying that he did not confront the defendant about a previous statement, then I believe . . . that [the] sum and substance of that transmission becomes relevant for purposes of impeachment." D.E. 23, Ex. F at 129; see also D.E. 23 at 10. However, the court ruled that Petitioner could not impeach Najera with "the actual [taped] conversation" alone because it was "pure hearsay, and in [the court's] opinion, it is a prior consistent statement [by the Petitioner]." D.E. 23 at 10 (citing D.E. 23, Ex. F at 129).

During trial, but before Najera took the stand, prosecutors told the trial judge that Najera would claim that during the taped conversation with Petitioner, he had attempted to bring up Petitioner's confession. D.E. 44 at 21. Specifically, the State argued that when Najera asked Stock if he had "told anyone else," he was referencing the previous confession. D.E. 23, Ex. F at C256-57. Accordingly, the State filed a "Motion to Clarify the Court's Ruling Concerning the Admission of Any Evidence Surrounding the COH Tape." See id. During the debate over the Motion to Clarify, the judge seemed willing to admit Najera's "tell anybody else" statement from the tape during re-direct if the defendant attempted, in his cross-examination, to impeach Najera by implying that he had never brought up the previous confession. D.E. 44 at 21-22. Defense counsel then argued that Petitioner should be allowed to bring in Stock's exculpatory "tell anybody what"response to Najera's statement on re-cross. Id. at 21-22 (citing D.E. 23, Ex. F at 434-35).

The trial judge ruled that defense counsel could not bring in Stock's exculpatory "tell anybody what" response. D.E. 44 at 22. To summarize, the trial court indicated that it would allow the prosecution to show that Najera had referenced the previous confession by introducing Najera's statement that "You didn't tell anybody else," but would not allow the defense to show that Petitioner then said: "Tell anybody what?" The trial court stated that those words ("Tell anybody what?") were "just ...

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