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Straughter v. Atchison

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

September 11, 2013

MIKE ATCHISON, Respondent.


David R. Herndon Chief Judge United States District Court

I. Introduction

On April 15, 2004, a jury found petitioner guilty of first degree murder in St. Clair County, Illinois. Petitioner received a fifty year sentence and is currently serving his term at Menard Correctional Center. On January 21, 2011, petitioner filed the instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He raised two different grounds for relief: 1) at trial, he was improperly impeached by the introduction of his prior criminal conviction in violation of the 6th and 14th Amendments; 2) petitioner’s appointed appellate counsel was ineffective because he failed to raise the ineffectiveness of petitioner’s appointed trial counsel for failing to object to improper closing argument. An answer is on file (Doc. 18), with supporting exhibits (Doc. 19), and petitioner’s time to file a reply has lapsed. (Doc. 20). For the following reasons, petitioner Lemual Straughter’s Petition for Habeas Corpus (Doc. 1) is DENIED.

II. Factual & Procedural Background

This Court must presume that the state court’s factual determinations are correct in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e); Badelle v. Correll, 452 F.3d 648, 659 (7th Cir. 2006). The following factual background relating to the instant petition has been taken from the Rule 23 unpublished decision rendered by the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court on December 7, 2005 (Case No. 05-04-0565) (Doc. 19-1) denying Petitioner’s appeal of his conviction due to the alleged improper impeachment; and from the appellate court’s Rule 23 order rendered on July 16, 2010 (Case No. 05-06-0632) (Doc. 19-2) affirming the trial court’s finding that Petitioner’s motion for post-conviction relief was patently frivolous.

A. Trial & Sentencing

A jury found petitioner guilty in the circuit court of St. Clair County of one count of first degree murder. (Doc. 19-1, p. 6). The State accused petitioner of the September 15, 2002 shooting death of Carlos Gibson. (Doc. 19-1, p. 1). Petitioner claimed he acted in self-defense. (Doc. 19-1, p. 1). Petitioner had previously had a relationship with Lafonda Brown, which produced two children. (Doc. 19-1, p. 2). Brown subsequently began seeing Gibson. (Doc. 19-1, p. 2). On September 14, 2002, petitioner heard a rumor that one of his children had been sexually molested. (Doc. 19-1, p. 2). The next day, he flagged down Brown while she was riding in Gibson’s car to discuss the molestation. (Doc. 19-1, pp. 2-3). The discussion became heated. (Doc. 19-1, p. 3). Petitioner saw Gibson smiling and said “ain’t nothing funny.” (Doc. 19-1, p. 3). He then pulled a pistol and pointed it at Gibson. (Doc. 19-1, p. 3). Brown attempted to calm down petitioner and told Gibson to drive away. (Doc. 19-1, p. 3). As he did so, petitioner fired several shots at the retreating car, one of which fatally struck Gibson in the back. (Doc. 19-1, p. 3). Brown jumped out of the car and identified petitioner as the shooter. (Doc. 19-1, p. 3). Petitioner admitted that he shot Gibson at trial, but argued that he saw Gibson reach for something and start to get out of the car, and therefore believed Gibson threatened his life. (Doc. 19-1, p. 5).

Petitioner had been convicted in 2001 of unlawful use of a weapon, and in 2002 for burglary. (Doc. 19-1, p. 1). Prior to trial, petitioner filed motions in limine to prohibit the use of both convictions. (Doc. 19-1, pp. 1-2). The court granted the motion as to the unlawful weapons conviction, but allowed the use of the burglary conviction for impeachment as a crime of dishonesty. (Doc. 19-1, p. 2). During the trial, petitioner took the stand in his own defense and testified that he saw Gibson reach for something and then exit the car. (Doc. 19-1, p. 5). He admitted that Gibson did not actually have a weapon at any time. (Doc. 19-1, p. 5). In response to a question from his attorney about how many rounds his weapon held, petitioner testified that “I couldn’t even tell you exactly because I had—I hadn’t had it that long, you know. I ain’t really too familiar with guns like that.” (Doc. 19-1, p. 5) Upon hearing that testimony, the prosecution asked the court to reconsider its ruling on the motion in limine regarding the prior conviction for unlawful use of a weapon. (Doc. 19-1, p. 5). The State argued that petitioner’s testimony that he was not familiar with guns had opened the door to impeach him with the weapons charge. (Doc. 19-1, p. 5). The court found the probative value of the prior conviction in light of petitioner’s testimony outweighed its prejudicial value, and the court permitted the State to impeach petitioner with his prior conviction on rebuttal. (Doc. 19-1, p. 6). The court gave the jury an instruction that they were only to consider this evidence as it related to petitioner’s credibility, and that the prior conviction was not evidence of guilt of the current charge. (Doc. 19-1, p. 6).

During the closing arguments, the prosecutor made the following statement: “This man killed Carlos Gibson for no reason, just like so many of the other murders that plague this area of our county.” (Doc. 19-2, p. 3). The prosecutor also went on to explain the jury instructions, and then spent time deconstructing petitioner’s argument that he acted in self-defense. (Doc. 19-2, p. 9). Finally, the prosecutor argued in favor of first degree murder over the defense’s preferred charge of second degree murder. (Doc. 19-2, p.10). The jury found petitioner guilty of first degree murder and he was ultimately sentenced to 50 years’ imprisonment. (Doc. 19-1, p. 6).

B. Direct Appeal

On direct appeal, petitioner argued he was denied a fair trial because the trial court improperly allowed the State to impeach him with highly prejudicial evidence of his prior conviction for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. (Doc. 19-1, p. 1). The appellate court affirmed the conviction and sentence. (Doc. 19-1, p.10). The appellate court specifically found:

Defendant’s credibility was crucial to the jury’s determination of guilt or innocence. It was entitled to be able to utilize information about his prior criminal behavior as it affected his credibility. Even assuming, arguendo, the trial court erred in allowing into evidence proof of defendant’s prior conviction for unlawful use of weapons, it would be deemed harmless. The evidence at the trial, including defendant’s own testimony that he did not see the victim with any type of weapon yet he fired repeatedly at the victim and even followed after Carlos’s vehicle to fire at him as he attempted to drive away, was more than sufficient to prove him guilty of first degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. (Doc. 19-1, p. 10).

Petitioner filed a PLA. (Doc. 19-5). The Illinois Supreme Court denied the petition for leave to appeal ...

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