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Trevizo v. Yurkovich

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 15, 2014

JOSEPH YURKOVICH, Warden, Respondent.


EDMOND E. CHANG, District Judge.

Petitioner Vincent Trevizo has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, [1] challenging his 2003 convictions for first-degree murder, concealment of a homicidal death, and aggravated arson. Trevizo raises six claims in support of the petition: 1) that he was denied the right to testify; 2) that he was denied the right to a trial by jury; 3) that he was denied the right to an impartial judge; 4) that he was denied effective assistance of counsel; 5) that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction; and 6) that he was denied his constitutional right to meaningful access to the court and due process of law. For the reasons that follow, Trevizo's petition is denied. His request for an evidentiary hearing is also denied, because factual disputes can be resolved by consulting the state record. And because reasonable jurists would not debate this petition's denial, no certificate of appealability will issue.

I. Background

When considering habeas petitions, federal courts must presume that the factual findings made by the last state court to decide the case on the merits are correct unless the petitioner rebuts those findings by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Coleman v. Hardy, 690 F.3d 811, 815 (7th Cir. 2012). Trevizo has not provided clear and convincing evidence to rebut the presumption of correctness here, so this factual background is taken from the state courts' findings.

A. Summary of the Crime

On the morning of September 3, 2000, firefighters responded to a fire call at Melissa Plut's apartment. R. 18-1, Exh. A, Order on Direct Appeal, People v. Trevizo, No. 2-03-0754, slip op. at 2 (Ill.App. Ct. May 18, 2006). After extinguishing a fire burning on the second floor of the apartment, firefighters discovered Melissa Plut's body on the same floor. Id. And after discovering gasoline and a trail of matches and paper towels leading from the first floor to the second floor, the fire was determined to be the result of arson. Id. at 18. An autopsy revealed that Plut died as a result of strangulation and that the fire was not a contributing factor to her death. Id. at 8. Plut also had a stab wound and other small lacerations that were probably inflicted after her death. Id.

On September 26, 2000, employees of a fire restoration company hired to salvage and inventory Plut's personal items recovered a vacuum cleaner in the front entryway of Plut's apartment. Id. at 11. Plut's blood stains were found on the vacuum cleaner. Id. at 19. A bloody sock was also found stuffed in the vacuum cleaner; it appeared that the bloody sock may have clogged the vacuum cleaner belt and caused it to break. Id. at 12.

On May 7, 2001, the State charged Trevizo, Plut's next-door neighbor, by indictment with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of concealment of a homicidal death, one count of aggravated arson, and one count of residential arson. R. 18-7, Exh. G, Order on Postconviction Appeal, People v. Trevizo, No. 2-10-0554, slip op. ¶ 3 (Ill.App. Ct. May 29, 2012). The indictment alleged that Trevizo strangled Plut to death and then set fire to Plut's apartment while her body remained inside. Id.

B. Pre-Trial Procedure

On May 16, 2001, Trevizo was arraigned by the trial court and instructed as follows:

You have the right to choose whether your trial is held in front of a judge or in front of a jury. You have the right in this matter to persist in a not guilty plea throughout the proceedings without testifying in this matter. No one can force you to testify. You can testify if you choose, but you cannot be forced to testify because of your privilege against self-incrimination.

Id. ¶ 4. When Trevizo was asked if he understood his rights, he responded, "Yes, your honor, " and then pleaded not guilty. Id.

In the following months, Trevizo exercised his right to substitute the trial court judge twice, id. ¶ 5, thereby exhausting his right to substitute the trial court judge without a showing of cause, Habeas Pet. ¶ 68. On August 8, 2001, the judge who presided over the remaining proceedings, Judge Wojtecki, made the following disclosure:

I don't think it matters, but first of all, I know [Trevizo's attorney, Tom Breen]. We were prosecutors together in the Cook County State's Attorneys Office and I consider [Breen] a friend. I don't think that's cause for recusal. Secondly, I want to tell you, [Breen], when I was in the public defender's office here doing some felony cases, this murder came up and I thought our office was going to be on it, I wasn't sure, so I went down and I talked to the State's Attorneys about the case. It was before anybody was ever arrested. Only thing I wanted to know was whether or not we might get it and I can tell you all that I·recall-what I recall is that there was a homicide in Joliet, there was a fire, someone was burned to death, a woman, and the State I think thought the boyfriend did it and that's all I remember. That's all I discussed.... I don't know anything about this case. I don't even know who the defendant is.... I wanted to tell you that. I probably would have learned more from the newspaper, I guess.

Id. ¶ 5. The following colloquy occurred shortly after Judge Wojtecki's disclosure:

MS. FLETCHER [Assistant State's Attorney]: You're not going to tell him I have your cat?
THE COURT: She has my cat.
MR. BREEN [Defendant's Attorney]: I don't want to know the story ...

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