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People v. Kuehner

Supreme Court of Illinois

May 21, 2015


Page 656

Michael J. Pelletier, State Appellate Defender, Alan D. Goldberg, Deputy Defender, and Kieran M. Wiberg, Assistant Appellate Defender, of the Office of the State Appellate Defender, of Chicago, for appellant.

Lisa Madigan, Attorney General, of Springfield (Carolyn E. Shapiro, Solicitor General, and Michael M. Glick and Sameena Mohammed, Assistant Attorneys General, of Chicago, of counsel), for the People.

Chief Justice Garman and Justices Freeman, Kilbride, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.


Page 657


[¶1] The issue is whether the circuit court of Sangamon County erred in granting appointed postconviction counsel's motion to withdraw and dismissing defendant's postconviction petition. We hold that it did.


[¶3] The appellate court's opinion below sets forth a thorough and comprehensive account of the factual history of this case, and we need not repeat the entirety of that account here. 2014 IL App. (4th) 120901, 380 Ill.Dec. 606, 8 N.E.3d 1148. Instead, we set forth only a brief summary of the relevant facts and only as necessary to frame the specific issue presented in this appeal.

[¶4] In October 2005, the 17-year-old defendant, Danny Kuehner, entered an open guilty plea to attempted first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/8-4, 9-1(a)(1) (West 2004)) and home invasion (720 ILCS 5/12-11(a)(2) (West 2004)). In February 2007, defendant filed a motion to withdraw that plea, alleging that it was not knowing and voluntary because of his attorney's deficient advice and representation. The trial court denied the motion and sentenced defendant to two consecutive terms of 17 1/2 years in prison.

[¶5] In May 2009, defendant filed a pro se petition for relief under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (Act) (725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq. (West 2008)). In the petition, defendant alleged that he was denied his right to the effective assistance of both trial and appellate counsel. More specifically, defendant's petition alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for (1) failing to investigate defendant's history of mental illness; and (2) telling defendant, defendant's mother, and defendant's aunt " lies" in order to " force" defendant into a guilty plea. According to the petition, the alleged lies included telling defendant that he would receive a sentence of between 12 and 20 years if he pleaded guilty. In addition, defendant's petition specifically alleged that trial counsel informed defendant's family that they had not paid counsel enough money to take the case to trial and that, because of this, trial counsel not only manipulated defendant's aunt and mother into believing they had to convince defendant to plead guilty, but also hid from defendant and his family exculpatory police and medical reports that undermined the State's charge of attempted murder. As for the claims against appellate counsel, defendant's petition simply alleged that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise trial counsel's ineffectiveness as an issue on direct appeal.

[¶6] Defendant attached two affidavits to his pro se petition, one from his mother and one from his aunt. In her affidavit, defendant's mother states that trial counsel told her that " there was evidence that would get Danny put in prison for life" and that " if [she] did not 'convince' Danny he had to plead guilty Danny would be in prison for the rest of his life." The affidavit goes on to state that defendant's mother " found out later that more evidence existed and [trial counsel] told me lies but at that time I was scared for my son's life so I thought I had to get him to plead guilty." Trial counsel also told defendant's mother that " he was not paid enough money to take Danny's case to trial and so [defendant's aunt and mother] would have to find a way to 'convince' Danny to plead

Page 658

guilty." According to defendant's mother, " [m]y son Danny did not plead guilty because he is guilty, he plead [ sic] guilty because his lawyer told me to give him information that I later found out was false."

[¶7] The affidavit from defendant's aunt states that, although trial counsel initially informed her that " the evidence showed that this was not Attempted First Degree Murder," he " shortly thereafter said he had told Danny to plead guilty to Attempted First Degree Murder and Home Invasion because the State had offered a plea bargain." According to the affidavit, trial counsel told defendant's aunt and mother " about some evidence they had against Danny, including Danny's t-shirt with blood on it, saying it was probably the victim's." As it turns out, although " [i]t ended up being someone else's blood and had nothing to do with the case," defendant and his family " were told only bits and pieces of Danny's discovery." According to defendant's aunt, " [w]e felt we had no other choice" and " basically just helped scare Danny into signing the deal along with [trial counsel] threatening to pass the deal onto his co-defendant if Danny did not sign it immediately." Following the entry of defendant's guilty plea, defendant's aunt sought new counsel " to try and take back the plea." According to the affidavit, defendant's new counsel showed defendant's family " medical reports and police reports we never knew existed" and that indicated that " the victim was in 'stable condition' and had no 'life threatening injuries.'"

[¶8] After conducting its first-stage review of defendant's pro se petition, the trial court entered an order specifically finding that the petition " is not frivolous or patently without merit." The trial court therefore docketed the petition for second-stage proceedings and appointed counsel to represent defendant. In addition, the trial court ordered the State to file a responsive pleading within 30 days, which the State did in the form of a motion to dismiss.

[¶9] Almost three years later, in July 2012, appointed counsel filed both a motion to withdraw as postconviction counsel pursuant to Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 95 L.Ed.2d 539 (1987) and a brief in support of that motion. According to the motion, " after a careful review of the entire record, the controlling law at the time of the conviction and sentence, as well as the immediately-preceding controlling law, and after conducting a thorough reviews of the issues raised by [defendant], court-appointed counsel herein has concluded that the issues raised by [defendant] are without merit and unsupportable as a matter of law." In the supporting brief, under the caption " Reason for Granting Motion to Withdraw," appointed counsel explained in detail her reasons for concluding that defendant's claim relating to trial counsel's alleged failure to investigate defendant's history of mental illness was without merit. In addition, appointed counsel explained why defendant's concerns over the disparity between his sentence and that of his codefendant were baseless. At no point, however, in either her motion to withdraw or the supporting brief, did appointed counsel ever address, analyze, or even mention any of the claims or allegations relating to trial counsel's alleged lies. Indeed, these pleadings nowhere reference the alleged lies relating to defendant's potential sentence, and they nowhere reference the alleged lies relating to the ...

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