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Ritchie v. Gilson

April 14, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge


Now before the Court is Petitioner, Joseph Ritchie's ("Ritchie"), Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the reasons set forth below, the Petition [#1] is DENIED.


Ritchie was charged with committing criminal sexual assault against his 14-year-old sister-in-law. Following closing arguments on the second day of trial, the jury deliberated for about five hours before asking to go home for the night. The jury returned the next morning and deliberated for about 40 minutes before returning a guilty verdict on September 29, 2005. Ritchie was subsequently sentenced to 66 months' imprisonment.

In reviewing the record on appeal, appellate counsel found a single sheet of paper in an envelope of jury notes that contained a discussion of the meaning of "reasonable doubt." There was no explanation for the presence of the document. On appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court, Ritchie argued that he had not received a fair trial based on the presence of the document and requested a remand. The Appellate Court granted the requested remand, but retained jurisdiction over the appeal.

On remand, the jurors from Ritchie's trial were subpoenaed to determine the origin of the "reasonable doubt" document and its impact, if any, on the trial. During the hearing, the jury foreperson testified that he "may have" researched the meaning of "reasonable doubt" on the internet the night before the jury reached its verdict and brought the document into the second day of jury deliberations the next morning. He further stated that the jurors had discussed the meaning of "reasonable doubt," that he had read parts of the document to the jurors that morning, and that there might have been some very little further discussion of "reasonable doubt." The majority of jurors did not recall having seen or discussing the document. People v. Ritchie, Order at 9, No. 3-05-0879 (Ill.App.3rd Dist. June 16, 2008).*fn1 The few remaining jurors recalled seeing a similar document on the table in the jury room and having part of it read to them. Id. The trial court determined that the document had been brought in by a juror and that part of it was read to at least some of the jury. Id. However, the trial judge concluded that the document's presence in the jury room had not prejudiced Ritchie.

On appeal, Ritchie argued that he was denied a fair trial because: (1) the "reasonable doubt" document improperly influenced the jury; (2) the court erroneously admitted testimony regarding a telephone conversation on the night of the incident during which he asked his wife to have sex with him when he got home; and (3) the prosecutor made improper and inflammatory statements during opening and closing arguments. On June 17, 2008, the Appellate Court affirmed his conviction and sentence. His subsequent Petition for Leave to Appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court was denied. Ritchie did not pursue post-conviction relief.

Ritchie next filed the present petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging: (1) the juror's exposure to the "reasonable doubt" document was prejudicial and violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights; (2) the admission of evidence regarding his phone conversation with his wife on the night of the incident denied him a fair trial; and (3) the prosecutor's improper comments during opening and closing arguments violated his right to Due Process. The petition is fully briefed, and this Order follows.


Before reaching the merits of a petition for writ of habeas corpus brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a district court must consider "whether the petitioner exhausted all available state remedies and whether the petitioner raised all his federal claims during the course of the state proceedings." Farrell v. Lane, 939 F.2d 409, 410 (7th Cir. 1991), quoting Henderson v. Thieret, 859 F.2d 492, 496 (7th Cir. 1988). If the answer to either of these questions is "no," then the failure to exhaust state remedies or procedural default bars the petition. Id. In other words, if a petitioner fails to give the state courts a full and fair opportunity to review his claims, then his petition must fail. Bocian v. Godinez, 101 F.3d 465, 468-69 (7th Cir. 1996).

Exhaustion of a federal claim occurs when it has been presented to the highest state court for a ruling on the merits or when it could not be brought in state court because a remedy no longer exists when the federal petition is filed. Id. In the present case, Respondent does not argue that Petitioner has failed to exhaust his state remedies.

Procedural default occurs when a claim could have been but was not presented to the state court and cannot, at the time the federal petition is filed, be presented to the state court. Resnover v. Pearson, 965 F.2d 1453, 1458 (7th Cir. 1992). This occurs in one of two ways. First, a procedural default may occur when a petitioner fails to pursue each appeal required by state law, Jenkins v. Gramley, 8 F.3d 505, 507-08 (7th Cir. 1993), or when he did not assert the claim raised in the federal habeas petition in the state court system. Resnover, 965 F.2d at 1458-59. The second way in which a petitioner may procedurally default a claim is when a state court disposes of the case on an independent and adequate state law ground, regardless of whether that ground is substantive or procedural. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 2553-55 (1991).

Federal review is barred for claims that are procedurally defaulted unless the petitioner can demonstrate cause and prejudice. Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 102 S.Ct. 1558, 1572-73 (1982); Farrell, 939 F.2d at 411. Review in federal court is also possible if a fundamental miscarriage of justice would otherwise occur in that a constitutional error probably resulted in the conviction of someone who is actually innocent. Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 115 S.Ct. 851, 864-67 (1995).

I. Juror Exposure to "Reasonable Doubt" Document

Ritchie first argues that the jury's exposure to the paper containing the lengthy and partially inaccurate discussion of the meaning of reasonable doubt violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Following the evidentiary hearing on remand, the trial court found that only two of the jurors had even a remote or vague recollection of seeing or reviewing the document, and the foreperson had a more specific recollection of reading portions of it to some or all of the jurors. People v. Ritchie, Order at 2, Case No. 04-CF-845 (Cir. Ct. Tazewell County, November 8, 2007). Based on the evidence, the trial court concluded that a juror had created the document from internet research, brought it into the deliberation room, and read part of the document to some or all of the other jurors. Id. In concluding that Ritchie had not been prejudiced by this occurrence, the trial court noted that "there was no direct evidence that the document in any way assisted any one juror in the formulation of his or her verdict" and that the mere fact that it was introduced into the deliberations did not, ipso facto, constitute prejudice. Id., citing People v. Taylor, 166 Ill.2d 414 (Ill. 1995). The trial court then cited People v. Majka, 365 Ill.App.3d 362 (2nd Dist. 2006), for the proposition that, "If the definition does not mislead the jury, it does not make the trial unfair."

The trial court acknowledged that under Illinois law, no definition of reasonable doubt is to be given to the jury. Id., at 3. While there was no case exactly on point, other cases from Illinois and other jurisdictions where a jury had been instructed erroneously or otherwise by either the court or counsel found that the instruction had not resulted in findings of prejudice. Id., at 3-4. The trial court then concluded that almost all of the paragraphs in the reasonable doubt document were either lifted or copied directly from language approved in other jurisdictions for defining the term. Id., at 4. From this, the trial court reasoned that "[t]he fact that other jurisdictions in criminal cases present in some cases similar language to jurors, however, is persuasive to this Court that no prejudice occurred herein." Id., at 5.

In addressing this issue on direct appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court noted that neither side had presented a factually analogous case. People v. Ritchie, Order at 10, No. 3-05-0879 (Ill.App.3rd Dist. June 16, 2008). The Appellate Court acknowledged that while it is well settled that it is improper in this state to attempt to define "reasonable doubt" in any manner, it is not necessarily reversible error. Id. The court discussed People v. Wallace, 279 Ill.139 (Ill. 1917), in which the Illinois Supreme Court found that the effect of giving the jury five lengthy instructions discussing reasonable doubt could only have been to suggest to the jury that "there was a grave fear that the jury would think there was a reasonable doubt of defendant's guilty when there was none." Id., at 10-11. In People v. Klein, 305 Ill. 141 (Ill. 1922), the Illinois Supreme Court found no reversible error where a long, involved instruction had been given telling the jury that it was incumbent upon the state to prove the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, as there was no showing that when taken in context of the instructions as a whole, there could have been any confusion as to the proof necessary. Similarly, where instructions advised the jury that the burden of proof "is not intended to aid anyone who is in fact guilty of crime to escape, but is a humane provision of the law intended, as far as human agencies can, to prevent an innocent person from being convicted," and "the doubt to acquit the defendant must be a reasonable doubt," the Illinois Supreme Court found that the error was not reversible but cautioned that the practice of attempting to define the term should be discontinued. However, in People v. Cagle, 41 Ill.2d 528 (Ill. 1969), the Supreme Court found reversible error where an instruction gave an elaborate definition of reasonable doubt that "implied that the law requires that an acquittal be justified."

Thus, the Appellate Court determined that the issue was not whether the document should not have been considered in deliberations, but rather whether its consideration improperly prejudiced the jury. Id., at 11. Citing People v. Lamon, 346 Ill.App.3d 1082, 1092 (3rd Dist. 2004), the court stated defendant's burden in demonstrating prejudice as needing to "establish that the extraneous information was prejudicial, a juror was exposed to the prejudicial information, and the juror's decision was influenced by the information." Id. In other words, the court must determine whether the jurors' exposure to the extraneous information created ...

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