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Williford v. Christianson

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

September 14, 2016

TIM CHRISTIANSON, Acting Chief of Parole, Respondent.



         Petitioner Robert Lee Williford, who is on supervised release after serving more than a decade in state prison for armed robbery and aggravated battery, petitions for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Doc. 6. Williford seeks habeas relief on the grounds that his trial, appellate, and post-conviction attorneys were constitutionally ineffective, that he was not provided with a preliminary hearing, that he is actually innocent, that the prosecutor relied on excluded evidence during closing arguments, and that his sentence is excessive. Williford's petition is denied, and the court will not issue a certificate of appealability.


         A federal habeas court presumes that the state courts' factual findings are correct unless they are rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Jean-Paul v. Douma, 809 F.3d 354, 360 (7th Cir. 2015) (“A state court's factual finding is unreasonable only if it ignores the clear and convincing weight of the evidence.”) (internal quotation marks omitted); Coleman v. Hardy, 690 F.3d 811, 815 (7th Cir. 2012) (“We give great deference to state court factual findings. After AEDPA, we are required to presume a state court's account of the facts correct, and the petitioner has the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.”) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Appellate Court of Illinois is the last state court to have adjudicated Williford's case on the merits. People v. Williford, 2014 IL App (1st) 133737-U (Ill.App. Sept. 15, 2014) (reproduced at Doc. 13-10); People v. Williford, 2011 WL 9686255 (Ill.App. Jan. 4, 2011) (reproduced at Doc. 13-14); People v. Williford, No. 1-05-2071 (Ill.App. Jan. 21, 2009) (reproduced at Doc. 13-1); People v. Williford, No. 1-05-2071 (Ill.App. May 14, 2008) (reproduced at Doc. 13-5 at 11-22). The following sets forth the facts as that court described them, as well as the procedural background of the state criminal and post-conviction proceedings.

         A. Factual Background

         On July 15, 2003, four men attacked Jacquelynn Popp and Michael Hurst while they were walking home from dinner. Doc. 13-1 at 2. Two of the men choked Popp and threw her to the ground before taking her phone and wallet from her pockets. Id. at 2-3. The other two men focused on Hurst; they hit him in the neck with a three-foot-long lead pipe, knocking him down, and then stole his keys, cigarettes, and watch. Id. at 2; Doc. 13-22 at 56, 61-62. The men then ran to a dark SUV parked nearby. Doc. 13-1 at 3.

         Popp flagged down a police car and pointed to the SUV as it began to drive away. Ibid. The police took off after the SUV and the SUV fled, setting in motion a chase that reached speeds of up to 80 miles per hour and drew in several other police cars. Id. at 3, 9. In the middle of the chase, a man jumped out of the SUV and ran away. Id. at 3. A few minutes later, the SUV crashed into a pole. Ibid. Williford stepped out of the driver's seat, and two other men- Rico Ardister and Anthony Brochs-stepped out of the passenger seats. Doc. 13-22 at 120-23. (The record contains inconsistent spellings of Brochs's name. E.g., Doc. 13-22 (“Brocks”). This court will use the state appellate court's spelling: “Brochs.”) All three men were detained. Doc. 13-1 at 3. A police officer retrieved a set of keys from Williford's pocket, and Hurst later identified them as his. Doc. 13-22 at 74-75, 127, 130.

         Popp and Hurst waited out the chase at a grocery store near where they were attacked. Doc. 13-1 at 3. The police brought Williford, Ardister, and Brochs to the store, and Popp and Hurst identified them as their attackers. Ibid.

         B. Trial

         Williford, Ardister, and Brochs were each charged with two counts of armed robbery under 720 ILCS 5/18-2(A)(1) and one count of aggravated battery under 720 ILCS 5/12-4(B)(1). Doc. 13-20 at 16-18. Ardister and Brochs pled guilty and received ten-year sentences. Doc. 13-1 at 8-9. The prosecutors offered Williford the same deal-a ten-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea-but he went to trial instead. Doc. 13-23 at 7-8.

         At trial, Popp testified that four men attacked her and Hurst and that Williford was one of the attackers. Doc. 13-22 at 18-19. Williford's lawyer did not object to the testimony. Ibid. Popp admitted on cross-examination that she had drunk two beers at dinner and that the street where she was robbed was dimly lit. Id. at 39-40. After Popp's testimony and outside the presence of the jury, Williford's attorney told the judge that Popp and Hurst had spoken in the hallway outside the courtroom. Id. at 50. Williford's lawyer noted that it would “[o]bviously … be a violation” of the court's exclusion order if Popp and Hurst had discussed Popp's testimony, and said, “I don't know how the Court handles that.” Ibid. The judge responded:

Real simple. If she violated the motion to exclude and discussed her testimony with the next witness, then I'll order the jury to strike her testimony, just completely disregard it as if she never existed, in violation of that exclusion order.

Id. at 50-51.

         Hurst's testimony came next. Id. at 52. Like Popp, Hurst testified that he was attacked by four men and that Williford was one of them, and that they stole his keys, cigarettes, and watch. Doc. 13-22 at 55, 60-61. Hurst also testified that he went to the hospital after the police chase and then went to the police station to give a statement; when he was done, the police gave him his keys and cigarettes. Id. at 74-75. On cross-examination, he admitted to drinking “one or two” beers at dinner. Id. at 77. Williford's lawyer asked Hurst whether he had a “specific, independent recollection of seeing [Williford] during the course of the attack, ” and Hurst refused to answer, even after the judge ordered him to. Id. at 78-79. Williford's lawyer also questioned Hurst about his conversation with Popp outside the courtroom. Id. at 79. Hurst admitted to speaking with Popp but denied discussing her testimony. Id. at 79-80. Williford did not move to strike Popp's testimony, and the judge did not order her testimony stricken. Id. at 80.

         A police officer, Brian Costanzo, testified after Hurst. Ibid. Costanzo testified that he was in the car that Popp flagged down after the robbery. Doc. 13-22 at 84. He further testified that he heard Popp screaming and saw four men running to a dark SUV, and he identified Williford as one of the men. Id. at 84-85. Costanzo and his partner chased after the SUV, and other police cars joined the chase in response to Costanzo's call for help over the radio. Id. at 89. Costanzo testified that the SUV was traveling at least 50 miles per hour and that it did not stop for any stop signs or red lights. Id. at 91. He also testified that a man jumped out of the car during the chase. Id. at 92.

         A second police officer, Vidas Nemickas, testified next. Id. at 106. Nemickas, a member of the 14th District gang team, joined the chase of the SUV. Id. at 107, 113. He testified that “about fifteen” police cars eventually joined the chase as well, id. at 114, that the SUV reached speeds of eighty miles an hour, id. at 116, that a man jumped out of the car as it turned into a housing complex, id. at 117, and that the chase came to an end when the SUV ran into a light pole, id. at 118. Three men, including Williford, got out of the car; Williford had been in the driver's seat. Id. at 122-23. Nemickas detained the men and searched them. Id. at 125. He found a cell phone in Brochs's pocket, a wallet in Ardister's pocket, and a set of keys in Williford's pocket. Id. at 125-27. Popp later identified the wallet and cell phone as hers, and Hurst identified the keys as his. Id. at 130.

         After Nemickas came Craig Turton, an employee of the Illinois Secretary of State, who testified that the SUV that Williford drove into a light pole was registered to Williford. Id. at 137-38, 143. The State's last witness was Assistant State's Attorney Barbara Dawkins. Id. at 144. She testified that when she interviewed Williford after his arrest, he told her that a friend of his named “Mookie” had asked him if he wanted to commit a “lick”-slang for a robbery-and that he had agreed, but that he never got out of the car while the robbery was happening. Id. at 151-52.

         The jury found Williford guilty of all three counts. Id. at 242. At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor argued for a long sentence on several grounds: Williford (or one of his accomplices) had hit Hurst around the head with a lead pipe, which could have killed him, Doc. 13-23 at 6; Williford had two prior felony convictions for possession of a controlled substance and for selling a firearm without observing the required 72-hour waiting period, id. at 5; he was on conditional discharge for another offense when he committed the robbery, ibid.; he had a stable childhood and family life, id. at 5-6; and he fled from the police, triggering a dangerous high-speed chase, id. at 7. The prosecutor also noted that Williford “was given an opportunity to take responsibility for this instance and was offered by this court ten years … on a plea of guilty and he did not take responsibility during that [settlement] conference.” Id. at 7-8. Williford's lawyer objected, and the court responded, “I'm not considering that at all. … I don't even want a reference to that.” Id. at 8. The prosecutor apologized and withdrew the remark. Ibid.

         Williford's lawyer argued for a more lenient sentence on the grounds that Williford was a veteran of the U.S. Army, id. at 11; that he was married and had three children, including one under the age of 18, and that he would not be able to support his family from prison, id. at 11-12; and that there was no evidence that he was the person who hit Hurst with the pipe, id. at 12. Then Williford, addressing the court personally, argued that he was innocent. Id. at 13-14.

         The trial judge spoke next. He first noted that the jury found Williford accountable for the acts of his co-defendants, including choking Popp and bludgeoning Hurst, and remarked that it was “[m]iraculous[]” that Hurst's “head wasn't crushed in when he was hit over the back of the head with a pipe.” Id. at 14-15. Then the judge discussed Williford's decision to flee the police:

And then engaging in something out of the Bullet or the French Connection. High speed chase over I don't know, 20, 30 blocks of the City of Chicago with police cars in pursuit. People flying out of your vehicle, diving out of the vehicle as it's moving through the streets resulting in you ultimately crashing the vehicle. I can't remember what the speed estimate was, but I think it was 80 miles an hour or something like that down Western Avenue. Causing near danger to countless people during that high speed chase.

Ibid. The judge then listed various statutory aggravating and mitigating factors, and explained why they did or did not apply. Id. at 16-20. He found that only one mitigating factor applied: that Williford's imprisonment “would entail excessive hardship to his dependents.” Id. at 16-19. He found that five statutory aggravating factors applied: Williford's “conduct … cause[d] or threaten[ed] serious harm”; he “received compensation for committing the offense”; he “ha[d] a history of prior delinquency, criminal activity”; he “was on a period of conditional discharge when this [crime] was committed”; and his “sentence [was] necessary to de[t]er others from committing the same crime.” Id. at 19-20. The judge then sentenced Williford to 25 years' imprisonment for each of the armed robbery counts and 5 years' imprisonment for the aggravated battery count, all to run concurrently. Id. at 20. He gave Williford credit for 695 days of pretrial detention, and imposed $499 in costs, which included a $20 assessment for the Violent Crime Victim Assistance Fund (“VCVA”). Id. at 21; Doc. 13-1 at 2 n.1.

         Williford later moved for the court to reconsider the sentence. Doc. 13-25 at 5. The judge denied the motion, stating:

[T]he defendant and three other individuals basically drive up from their neighborhood into Wicker Park looking for opportunities to rob, set up some kind of ambush which they do. These two people that are coming back from dinner get ambushed by Williford and the other three individual[s], one of the victims gets cracked over the head with a pipe, struck by one of the co-offenders and after being relieved of their personal property, Williford then engages in a high speed chase trying to outrun the police down Western Avenue at speeds up to 80 miles per hour, I believe was the testimony, causing one of the most dangerous types of situations that you could ever imagine. The sentence was appropriate. Motion to reconsider sentence denied.

Id. at 6-7.

         C. Direct Appeal and ...

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