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United States ex rel McClendon v. Gaetz

August 4, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA EX REL. BRIAN MCCLENDON, PETITIONER,
v.
DONALD GAETZ, WARDEN, MENARD CORRECTIONAL CENTER, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles P. Kocoras United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION*fn1

CHARLES P. KOCORAS, District Judge

This matter comes before the court on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Petitioner Brian McClendon pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the reasons set forth below, the petition is denied.

BACKGROUND

McClendon is currently serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. The conviction resulted from events that occurred on the night of November 6, 2003. At that time, McClendon lived in Chicago with his girlfriend, Theresa Henry. After several hours of drinking with Credell Harris, a friend of McClendon's and a former boyfriend of Henry's, McClendon and Henry began to argue about her prior relationship with Harris. McClendon, who is 6 feet 1 inch tall and between 175 and 195 pounds, struck the 140-pound 5-foot-4 Henry repeatedly and eventually knocked her down in the living room of their house. The fight temporarily ceased when he went into the kitchen and she went into a bedroom. While in the kitchen, McClendon retrieved a loaded, cocked handgun from a windowsill.

When Henry came out of the bedroom, the altercation resumed. McClendon continued to strike Henry while still holding the loaded weapon. A blow to Henry's face again knocked her to the floor. As Henry lay on the floor, McClendon stood over her, continued to hit her with his fists and the gun, and then shot her in the left side of her face. Medical evidence adduced at trial showed that gunpowder and soot from the discharge was found only inside the wound indicating that the barrel of the gun was pressed tightly into Henry's face when discharged.

After shooting Henry, McClendon left the home with Harris, who had remained inside the residence but who was not in the kitchen when Henry was shot. Both men were arrested shortly thereafter. Upon his arrest, Harris gave a written statement to police and a prosecutor relating his version of the events. According to the statement, Harris heard McClendon repeatedly yell "You're lying. I'm going to f*** you up," immediately before the shot was fired. None of the police reports mentioned that phrase, and, when he eventually testified at McClendon's trial, Harris denied relating that portion of the event to police.

McClendon, by contrast, underwent a videotaped interview. In it, he initially related that Henry was standing when she was shot. When told that his account did not square with other evidence the police had gathered, he revised his version to state that Henry was lying on the kitchen floor when he shot her. He went on to say that he stood over the prostrate Henry, hit her, and pointed the gun, which he knew to be loaded and cocked, at her. McClendon stated that the gun "went off," but he maintained that he did not mean to shoot Henry. Rather, according to McClendon, he "snapped" as a result of his sense of betrayal and perception that Henry had lied to him about Harris.

At a bench trial, the prosecution's evidence included testimony from Harris and an Assistant State's Attorney ("ASA") who participated in McClendon's videotaped interview and took down Harris's post-arrest statement. Testimony was also given by the police officer who initially determined that McClendon was the shooter and a detective who assisted in the interviews of Harris and McClendon. The trial judge also received the aforementioned medical evidence pertaining to the location of the gunshot residue within Henry's wound.

At the close of the evidence, the judge found McClendon guilty of first-degree murder. In Illinois, first-degree murder consists of killing another without lawful justification when the person causing the death either intends to kill or do great bodily harm or knows that the acts that caused the death would create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm. 720 ILCS 5/9-1. The trial judge rendered his verdict without making specific findings of fact or conclusions of law, and McClendon was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual criminal based on his prior record.

McClendon appealed the conviction, asserting that the prosecution did not show that he had the specific intent necessary to support a verdict of guilt on a first-degree murder charge. Rather, he contended that the evidence showed that his acts were reckless, a mental state that would only support a guilty verdict on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Because McClendon's challenge called into question the sufficiency of the evidence raised at trial, the appellate court reviewed all of the evidence presented at trial in a light most favorable to the prosecution to determine whether any rational factfinder would have found McClendon guilty of all of the elements of first-degree murder.

The court concluded that the evidence supported a finding that McClendon acted with the requisite mental state. The court based its holding on several pieces of evidence, focusing primarily on what McClendon's conduct indicated about his mental state. Specifically, the court pointed to McClendon's repeated beating of Henry despite his significant height and weight advantage, his use of his gun in the fight despite his knowledge that it was loaded and cocked, and the medical evidence pertaining to the manner in which Henry was shot. The court also found Harris's written statement significant and noted that the ASA testified that Harris had stated during his interview with the ASA that McClendon told Henry he was going to "f[*** her] up."

In McClendon's favor, the court noted that Harris testified at trial that he did not remember telling the ASA that McClendon had threatened Henry. The court also took into consideration Harris's testimony that, after the shooting, McClendon told him that he had not meant to shoot Henry. The court noted McClendon's words to the same effect during his videotaped interview but concluded that the evidence in McClendon's favor was insufficient to overcome the effect of the other items detailed above. McClendon sought leave to appeal the decision from the Illinois Supreme Court, requesting that the high court decide whether the appellate court had erred in finding that McClendon had been proven guilty of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The petition was denied.

McClendon also filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, which raised several grounds he claimed entitled him to relief from his conviction. In particular, he provided an affidavit from Harris stating that, at the time of Henry's murder, he was a police informant. According to the affidavit, the police instructed Harris when he was arrested to state that McClendon had threatened Henry as described before shooting her. McClendon argued that this constituted use of perjured testimony by the prosecution that necessitated a hearing on his petition. After the trial court summarily denied his petition, McClendon appealed, through counsel. The sole ground raised on appeal challenged the use of Harris' allegedly perjured testimony at trial. The dismissal of the petition was upheld on appeal. Thereafter, ...


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