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People v. Christian

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fifth Division

March 4, 2016

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DARRYL CHRISTIAN, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 89 CR 15497. The Honorable Diane Cannon, Judge Presiding.

         For APPELLANT: Joel A. Brodsky, Chicago, Illinois.

         For APPELLEE: Hon. Stuart A. Nudelman (Ret.), Special State's Attorney, Myles P. O'Rourke, Rafael A. Bombino, Assistant Special State's Attorneys, Office of the Special State's Attorney, Chicago, Illinois.

         Presiding Justice Reyes and Justice Lampkin concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

         GORDON, JUSTICE

          [¶1] The instant appeal arises from a postconviction proceeding pursuant to the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission Act (Act) (775 ILCS 40/1 et seq. (West 2010)). In 2011, defendant Darryl Christian filed a petition before the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (Commission), claiming that he had been tortured into confessing to the murder of his stepmother in 1989, a crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), even though he claimed he was innocent. After reviewing defendant's petition, the Commission determined that sufficient evidence existed to warrant judicial review pursuant to the Act. Defendant's petition was assigned to a judge in the circuit court of Cook County, where an evidentiary hearing occurred. After the evidentiary hearing, the circuit court found that there was no credible evidence that defendant was entitled to any relief on his torture claim and, accordingly, denied defendant's petition. Defendant appeals, raising an issue of first impression in this court, namely, whether the findings of the Commission are entitled to any preclusive effect before the circuit court. Alternatively, defendant argues that the circuit court's findings were against the manifest weight of the evidence. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         [¶2] BACKGROUND

          [¶3] The instant appeal concerns a question of law about the effect of the Commission's findings, as well as review of the circuit court's finding that there was no credible evidence to support defendant's torture claim. The evidence before the circuit court included all of the prior court proceedings in defendant's case, so we set them forth here in order to properly analyze whether the circuit court's decision was against the manifest weight of the evidence. We provide only the detail that is necessary for resolution of the instant appeal.

          [¶4] In summary, in 1989, defendant was charged with first degree murder in connection with the death of his stepmother. After being arrested, defendant allegedly made a statement to a police detective and an assistant State's Attorney confessing to the crime. Defendant filed a motion to suppress the statement, claiming that the detectives interrogating him had struck him in the jaw and threatened to further abuse him if he did not confess. Defendant's motion to suppress was denied, and defendant was ultimately convicted of the murder and sentenced to 55 years in the IDOC. Defendant unsuccessfully filed a direct appeal, two postconviction petitions, and a petition for writ of habeas corpus before the federal district court. In 2011, defendant filed a claim of torture before the Commission. After conducting a formal inquiry, the Commission concluded that there was sufficient evidence to merit judicial review and referred the claim to the circuit court for further consideration. The circuit court conducted an evidentiary hearing, after which it concluded that defendant was not entitled to any relief under the Act.

         [¶5] I. Defendant's Arrest and Trial

          [¶6] On July 20, 1989, defendant was indicted for first degree murder in connection with the death of his stepmother on June 24, 1989. According to the police report, [1] Officer Roland Hunter was called to the scene by the Chicago fire department and, upon his arrival, was met by defendant. Defendant informed Hunter that he had left for work at 10 p.m. on June 23, 1989, and had returned home at approximately 10 a.m. and discovered his stepmother dead in the living room. Detective Michael Cummings also interviewed defendant, who told Cummings that he had been at a neighbor's house all night watching television with friends, arriving there between 10 and 11 p.m. on June 23 and leaving at 8 a.m. on June 24 to exercise in a nearby park, returning home at 10 a.m. and discovering his stepmother's body. Cummings interviewed the neighbors, one of whom stated that defendant came to his home between 10 and 11 p.m. and smoked cocaine with the neighbor and the neighbor's sister until 2 to 2:30 a.m., at which point defendant left.

          [¶7] According to the police report, defendant agreed to accompany Cummings to Area 2 Violent Crimes headquarters to be questioned further. Cummings read defendant his Miranda rights ( Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966)), which defendant said he understood. Defendant chose to speak with Cummings and confessed to Cummings that he had killed his stepmother during an argument. Defendant told Cummings that he and his stepmother had argued because she wanted him to move out because he was not doing any chores around the house. Defendant stated that he was not leaving and his stepmother said that she would force him out, going to the kitchen and obtaining a large kitchen knife. Defendant grabbed her wrist and removed the knife from her hand, then began stabbing her. He pushed her away and she fell to the floor. Defendant dropped the knife and left. Defendant later returned to the house and retrieved the knife and also kicked out the basement window to make it look like someone had broken into the house. Defendant drove away and threw the knife into some bushes while he was driving, then drove back home and called the police. Before the police arrived, he removed his bloodied gym shoes and hid them under the rear porch.[2]

          [¶8] According to the police report, after giving that account, defendant was placed under arrest and the felony review unit of the State's Attorney's office was notified. Assistant State's Attorney (ASA) Dave Fischer interviewed defendant, who gave him a written statement.

          [¶9] Defendant's statement stated, in relevant part:

" Darryl said that he'd been down the block watching TV with his friends when he decided to go home. He went to his home and got into an argument with his mother; [3] she wanted him to leave because he did not do housework that she thought he should do. Darryl said that he refused to leave, and the argument continued. His mother went into the kitchen and got a large knife; she then came back to where they'd been arguing. Darryl took the knife from his mother, stabbed her once with it, and pushed her away. She fell to the floor, and the knife was dropped beside her.

         Darryl said that he then left the house, returned for a while to his friend's house down the street, and then went walking. He returned to the house he'd shared with his mother around 9:30 and took her car for a ride, throwing the knife he'd stabbed her with into weeds at 76th St. and South Chicago. Darryl also broke a window at the house and then called the Chicago police.

         Darryl is 33 years old and received his G.E.D. in the United States Army. He reads, writes, and speaks English. Darryl has been well treated while in police custody. Det. Cummings has given him cigarettes and lunch and coffee. No one has threatened Darryl nor promised him anything in return for this statement. Darryl appears and sounds free from alcohol and drugs and tells us that he is in fact sober and in control of his thoughts at this time. Darryl has told us that he is sorry about what happened between himself and his mother last night."

          [¶10] Prior to trial, defendant filed a motion to suppress the statement he had allegedly made confessing to the crime, claiming, inter alia, that " the statements sought to be suppressed were obtained as a result of physical coercion illegally directed against the defendant and that such statements were, therefore, involuntary in violation of the 5th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution." Specifically, the motion claimed that " [defendant] was hit by one of the *** Detectives."

          [¶11] At the suppression hearing, ASA Fischer testified that on June 24, 1989, he was working in the felony review unit at the State's Attorney's office and was called to Area 2 to speak with Detective Cummings. After he spoke with Cummings, he reviewed paperwork and then had a conversation with defendant in an interview room. Fischer entered the room with Cummings and observed defendant sitting on a bench in the interview room. Fischer introduced himself, explaining that he was an attorney with the State's Attorney's office and did not represent defendant. He then advised defendant of his Miranda rights, which defendant stated he understood. Defendant then spoke to Fischer about the crime for approximately 15 minutes. At the end of that conversation, Fischer asked defendant whether he wished to have a court reporter take his statement or if he would rather have a summarized statement written by Fischer. Defendant chose the written statement, so Fischer and Cummings left the interview room and Fischer drafted a three-page summary of defendant's confession.

          [¶12] After he had drafted the statement, Fischer and Cummings returned to the interview room, where Fischer showed the draft to defendant. While Fisher had previously established that defendant had obtained a GED, he nevertheless asked defendant to read the beginning of the document out loud, which defendant did. Defendant then signed the written Miranda warnings at the beginning of the document and was asked to read the rest of the statement silently. On the second page, defendant pointed out that there was an incorrect time written in the summary, so Fischer corrected the time and Fischer, Cummings, and defendant initialed the correction. After defendant had finished reviewing the statement, Fischer, Cummings, and defendant signed each page of the statement. When Fischer and Cummings were exiting the interview room, Fischer waved Cummings away and stuck his head back into the interview room to ask defendant if everything was all right; defendant responded that it was. Fischer testified that he had also asked defendant if everything was all right prior to taking his statement and defendant responded that it was.

          [¶13] Fischer testified that at no time did he or anyone in his presence strike defendant or use any type of physical coercion on him. Fischer also observed defendant eating a lunch from McDonald's. Fischer further testified that he did not observe any injuries on defendant and that defendant did not ask him for medical attention.

          [¶14] Detective Lawrence Nitsche testified at the suppression hearing that on June 24, 1989, he was employed as a detective in the Chicago police department, assigned to Area 2 Violent Crimes. He was assigned to investigate the victim's homicide and arrived at the scene at approximately 12:15 p.m. He observed the crime scene for 10 to 15 minutes, then left with defendant and Detective Cummings in an unmarked police vehicle and returned to Area 2 headquarters. They returned to Area 2 about 10 to 15 minutes later and defendant was placed in an interview room on the second floor, after which Nitsche began working on paperwork for an unrelated assignment. Nitsche did not have any contact with defendant until approximately 4:15 p.m. when he assisted Cummings in escorting defendant to the lockup. Nitsche testified that neither he nor anyone in his presence struck defendant.

          [¶15] Detective Cummings testified at the suppression hearing that on June 24, 1989, he was a detective assigned to Area 2 Violent Crimes and at approximately 11:30 a.m. received an assignment to investigate the victim's homicide. When he arrived, he observed the scene, spoke to the beat officer, and spoke with defendant. He also spoke with some other individuals living nearby, after which he returned to the scene and asked defendant to accompany him to Area 2; they left at approximately 12:30 p.m., along with Detective Nitsche. When they arrived at Area 2 at approximately 12:45 p.m., he and Nitsche escorted defendant to the second floor and Cummings asked defendant to sit in one of the interview rooms. A few minutes later, Cummings entered the interview room where defendant was sitting and advised him of his Miranda rights, which defendant indicated that he understood. Defendant and Cummings then had a conversation for approximately 10 minutes, after which Cummings told defendant he was under arrest, left the room, and called the felony review unit of the State's Attorney's office. While they were waiting for the felony review unit, Cummings gave defendant coffee, smoked a cigarette with him, and took him to the bathroom. He asked defendant if he was hungry and when defendant responded that he was, Cummings gave defendant a lunch purchased from McDonald's.

          [¶16] Cummings testified that ASA Fischer arrived at approximately 1:30 p.m., and they both went into the interview room. Fischer introduced himself to defendant and again advised defendant of his Miranda rights, which defendant stated he understood. Defendant then had a conversation with Fischer for approximately 5 to 10 minutes, then Fischer asked defendant whether he would be willing to give a handwritten or court-reported statement. Defendant stated that he wished to provide a handwritten statement and Cummings and Fischer left the room and Fischer wrote out the statement. Cummings and Fischer then reentered the interview room at approximately 2:15 p.m. and gave the statement to defendant. Fischer asked defendant to read the heading and Miranda warnings out loud, which defendant did. Defendant then continued reading the statement and pointed out an error, which Fischer corrected, and all three initialed the correction. After defendant finished reviewing the statement, he, Fischer, and Cummings all signed each page. Fischer and Cummings then left the room, and Fischer motioned Cummings away and stuck his head back into the interview room. Cummings testified that he and Fischer were the only ones who ever entered the interview room and that neither he nor anyone in his presence ever struck defendant in any manner.

          [¶17] The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress, finding that " he was not in fact physically coerced in any way. He was not beaten, hit, kicked or whatever by any of the police officers or by the assistant state's attorney."

          [¶18] The matter proceeded to a jury trial, where defendant was convicted of first degree murder and was sentenced to 55 years in the IDOC. At trial, ASA Fischer testified consistently with his testimony at the suppression hearing. Officer Hunter testified consistently with the account stated in the police report that defendant had informed him that he had been at work from 10 p.m. on June 23 until 10 a.m. the following morning. Detective Cummings also testified consistently with the account stated in the police report and with his testimony at the suppression hearing. Defendant did not present any evidence and did not testify on his own behalf.

         [¶19] II. Prior Appeals

          [¶20] Defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that (1) the trial court abused its discretion by failing to ask prospective jurors two questions about defendant's drug use and the victim's age; (2) the prosecutor made improper remarks during rebuttal argument which deprived defendant of a fair trial; and (3) the trial court erred in denying defendant's motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. People v. Christian, No. 1-91-0758, at 1 (1993) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We affirmed the trial court's judgment. Christian, No. 1-91-0758, at 1.

          [¶21] With respect to defendant's argument concerning improper remarks during rebuttal argument, defendant argued that " the prosecutor made improper rebuttal to defense counsel's argument that the defendant's confession was induced by police coercion." Christian, No. 1-91-0758, at 4. We rejected defendant's argument, finding that " [w]ithin the context of the trial as a whole, the prosecutor's comments do not represent remarks so prejudicial that defendant's fundamental right to a fair trial was violated. The strongest evidence against defendant was his signed statement. The circumstances surrounding the statement do not hint of police abuse. The defendant voluntarily went to the police station, ate lunch one hour later, and signed a statement within the next hour. When asked, defendant stated he was free from drugs and alcohol and did not complain to Assistant State's Attorney Fischer about mistreatment by the police. Most importantly, defense counsel failed to offer any evidence of police abuse. He only argued police abuse in closing argument." Christian, No. 1-91-0758, at 5.

          [¶22] With respect to defendant's ineffective assistance of counsel claims, defendant argued that trial counsel should have called alibi and character witnesses to testify on his behalf. Christian, No. 1-91-0758, at 5. We rejected defendant's argument, finding that defense counsel's decisions were matters of trial strategy, and noting that " [i]n this case, defense counsel interviewed Tiwana Alexander, an alleged alibi witness, and the trial judge was aware of the interview. Ms. Alexander was also available during the trial. Yet, defense counsel chose not to call her as a witness. Defense counsel further chose not to call character witnesses. Decisions whether character and alibi witnesses will be called are matters which defense counsel must decide for every trial as a part of strategy. We believe that the trial court understood these matters clearly pertained to trial strategy." Christian, No. 1-91-0758, at 6.

          [¶23] On February 15, 1994, defendant filed a pro se postconviction petition, which was dismissed by the trial court at the first stage. On appeal, defendant's appointed counsel filed a motion for leave to withdraw as appellate counsel and filed a brief in support of the motion pursuant to Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 95 L.Ed.2d 539 (1987), in which appellate counsel stated that he had reviewed the trial record and concluded that there were no arguable bases for collateral relief. People v. Christian, No. 1-94-1595, at 1-2 (1995) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). After reviewing the record and the briefs, we found no issues of arguable merit and, consequently, permitted appointed counsel to withdraw and affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Christian, No. 1-94-1595, at 2.

          [¶24] On July 24, 1997, defendant filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court, in which he claimed that his " involuntary confession to the police on June 24, 1989 was in violation of his fifth amendment right to the federal constitution and therefore the confession should have been suppressed." On April 7, 1998, defendant's petition was denied by the district court.

          [¶25] On October 17, 2003, defendant filed a pro se successive postconviction petition, which was supplemented on November 1, 2006, after appointment of counsel. One of the claims in the successive petition was that defendant was entitled to an evidentiary hearing regarding police misconduct that coerced his confession, because the state of the law had changed since defendant's trial and there was newly discovered evidence. The successive petition claimed that since the appellate court decision on defendant's first postconviction petition, there was new case law concerning police brutality claims at Area 2, citing People v. Patterson, 192 Ill.2d 93, 735 N.E.2d 616, 249 Ill.Dec. 12 (2000), and People v. Cannon, 293 Ill.App.3d 634, 688 N.E.2d 693, 227 Ill.Dec. 1000 (1997); defendant's pro se petition also referred to an Office of Professional Standards (OPS) report finding a systemic practice of torturing suspects at Area 2. The petition also pointed to two appellate court decisions in which the conduct of detectives Cummings and Nitsche had been at issue. The petition argued that " [b]ased upon petitioner's sworn assertions against Cummings and Nitsche, changes in applicable law, and [the] backgrounds of Cummings and Nitsche at Area Two, a new hearing on the voluntariness of the confession attributed to petitioner is now needed." Defendant's petition was dismissed at the second stage. On appeal, defendant's appointed counsel filed a motion for leave to withdraw as appellate counsel pursuant to Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 95 L.Ed.2d 539 (1987), and we granted counsel's motion and affirmed the trial court. People v. Christian, No. 1-07-2482 (2009) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).

         [¶26] III. Torture Claims Under the Act

         [¶27] A. Commission Proceedings

          [¶28] On May 2, 2011, defendant filed a claim of torture before the Commission. Defendant claimed that on June 24, 1989, " I was struck extremely hard in the face, dazed and confused while being screamed at to give a false confession to the [assistant] States Attorney, and threaten[ed] [that] if I did not do it, the abuse would continue. So I gave the false statement to end the abuse. Which is the only evidence used to convict me. I am an innocent man falsely incarcerated." (Emphasis in original.)

          [¶29] On June 13, 2012, the Commission issued its case disposition, which stated that " it is the decision of the Commission that, by a preponderance of the evidence, there is sufficient evidence of torture to conclude the Claim is credible and merits judicial review for appropriate relief." The Commission stated that its decision was based on the following findings of fact.

         [¶30] 1. Commission's Findings of Fact

          [¶31] On June 24, 1989, defendant telephoned the Chicago police and ambulance from his stepmother's home and stated that he had arrived at the home and discovered that she had been stabbed to death. Area 2 detectives Michael Cummings and Lawrence Nitsche were among the police personnel responding to the scene; while Jon Burge had been transferred from Area 2 to Area 3 the year before, the detectives had worked at Area 2 while Burge was there. While at the scene, defendant was questioned concerning his activities prior to discovering the body and was then taken to Area 2 after being informed that the people he mentioned did not support his account. " During the questioning of [defendant] at Area 2, the Detectives screamed and yelled at [defendant], and Cummings struck [defendant] very hard in the face. [Defendant] was also threatened with further beatings if he did not agree to confess." Defendant signed a three-page confession written by an ASA and was later indicted for the murder of his stepmother in the circuit court of Cook County.

          [¶32] Defendant filed a motion to suppress his confession, " alleging that he was struck and confessed as a result." Although he swore to the contents of the motion, defendant was not called as a witness at the hearing, nor did the defense present any other witnesses or evidence in support of the motion. The ASA who had taken defendant's statement testified at the hearing that within a period of 45 to 60 minutes after arriving at Area 2, he was briefed by the detectives about the case; interviewed defendant, who orally confessed; wrote up the confession from memory because he had not taken any notes; and reviewed the written confession with defendant, which was then corrected and signed.

          [¶33] According to the Commission:

" Since the motion to suppress was heard, the following evidence has emerged:
a. In 1990 the Office of Professional Standards of the Chicago Police Department concluded after an internal investigation that there had been systemic abuse at Area 2 for over 10 years. The ...

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