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People v. Fort

Supreme Court of Illinois

February 17, 2017

CAMERON FORT, Appellant.

          JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Freeman, Garman, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.


          BURKE, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 At issue in this appeal is whether a minor who is tried in adult court under the "automatic transfer" provision of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987 (Act) (705 ILCS 405/5-130 (West 2008)) but is later not convicted of the charges which brought him into adult court is subject to mandatory adult sentencing under the Act. Defendant, age 16, was charged with multiple counts of first degree murder and tried in adult court but was convicted only of the uncharged offense of second degree murder. See 720 ILCS 5/9-2(a)(2) (West 2008). The circuit court of Cook County sentenced defendant as an adult to 18 years in prison. We hold that the trial court erred in automatically sentencing defendant as an adult pursuant to section 5-130(1)(c)(i) of the Act because second degree murder was not a "charge[ ] arising out of the same incident" as the first degree murder charges. 705 ILCS 405/5-130(1)(a), (1)(c)(i) (West 2008).

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Defendant, Cameron Fort, was indicted and charged by a grand jury with 57 counts of first degree murder, 9 counts of attempted first degree murder, and 3 counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm in connection with the shooting death of Lee Ivory Miller on March 16, 2009. Defendant was 16 years old at the time of the incident.

         ¶ 4 The State proceeded to trial on four counts of first degree murder and dismissed the remaining charges. Because defendant was charged with first degree murder, an offense specified in section 5-130 of the Act (705 ILCS 405/5-130(1)(a) (West 2008)), also known as the "automatic transfer" statute, defendant was tried as an adult. 705 ILCS 405/5-130(1)(b)(ii) (West 2008).

         ¶ 5 Defendant elected a bench trial. A detailed recitation of the trial evidence is contained in the appellate court's opinion. 2014 IL App (1st) 113315-U. We briefly summarize the facts here, bearing in mind that the issue presented in this appeal is one of law.

         ¶ 6 At trial, Keva Donaldson testified that on March 16, 2009, she met a group of friends after school at the intersection of East 64th Street and South Stony Island Avenue. Donaldson and her friends attended Hyde Park Academy. While Donaldson was talking to another girl, a boy named "Bolo" began speaking to her and tapping her on the back. When Donaldson told him to stop, Bolo hit her with a closed fist, leaving a mark on her face from his ring. Bolo and his friends, including defendant, then ran away. Donaldson borrowed a cell phone and called a male friend to ask him to confront Bolo. Airreon Sykes, Elijah Sullivan, Gerome Freeman, Lamont Nichols, and Miller eventually arrived. Sometime later, Donaldson said, she went into a convenience store. When she left the store, Sykes and another boy told her that defendant had shot Miller a block away.

         ¶ 7 Freeman testified that on March 16, 2009, he arrived at a location near 1516 East 65th Place and began walking with Sykes, Sullivan, Nichols, Miller, and other individuals. Freeman said he separated from the group and crossed the street to talk to a group of girls, then crossed back to rejoin his friends who were standing near a vacant lot. Freeman testified that his friends had surprised looks on their faces. He then saw defendant nearby pointing a gun at the group. He said defendant hesitated for about 30 seconds and then began shooting. Freeman heard two or three shots fired as he ran away but did not see defendant fire the gun. Freeman denied that he or his friends had any guns or other weapons, but he testified that he thought Miller was holding a stick in his hand.

         ¶ 8 Sykes testified that he was with Sullivan, Freeman, Nichols, Donaldson, and Miller on the afternoon of March 16, 2009, at the corner of East 65th Street and Stony Island Avenue. Sykes knew defendant from school and testified that defendant had been involved in a fight a week or two before the shooting. Sykes saw defendant walking toward him and his group of friends. Defendant then crossed the street and walked away from the group. Sykes testified that they lost sight of defendant. A while later, Sykes and his friends split into two groups and began to search the area for defendant. After they reached a vacant lot, they saw that defendant was standing nearby but facing away from them. Defendant turned around and appeared surprised to see them. Sykes saw defendant pull a gun out of his pocket and point it at the group. After five to ten seconds, defendant began shooting. Sykes testified that no one in the group had any weapons, sticks, or poles.

         ¶ 9 The parties stipulated that during an autopsy, three bullet entrance wounds were found on Miller's body-on his right shoulder, his upper left back, and his left buttock-and two bullets were recovered from his body. Those bullets were later tested and determined to have been fired from the same firearm.

         ¶ 10 The State then introduced a video recording of defendant's interrogation by a detective and assistant State's Attorney on January 9, 2010, one day after his arrest. In the video, defendant stated that he found a gun in an alley on March 14, 2009, and he intended to return it that location. Defendant said that on March 16, 2009, he saw Nichols at a bus stop near East 65th Street and Stony Island Avenue. When Nichols approached defendant with his hand in his pocket, defendant crossed the street to avoid him. Defendant said he had heard that Nichols had threatened others with guns. Nichols continued to follow him as he walked down the street. Defendant stated that he was panicking and thought he was going to die because he was "eighty percent sure" that Nichols was holding a gun.

         ¶ 11 Defendant stated in the video that he pulled out a gun from his sweatshirt pocket before he reached the vacant lot. He saw Sykes and Miller standing about 10 feet away. Defendant stated that Sykes was holding a thick metal pole. He could not tell whether Miller had anything in his hands. Defendant stated that he jumped, which caused the gun to discharge accidentally. Defendant said he fired a second shot three seconds later because his ears were ringing and he thought he heard Nichols shooting at him. He stated that he just wanted to scare them so that they would leave him alone. He denied aiming at anyone and denied firing a third shot.

         ¶ 12 The State rested its case. Defendant did not present any evidence. Following closing arguments, the trial court found defendant not guilty of two counts of murder and merged the remaining two counts. The court found that the State had proved the elements of first degree murder but also found that "at the time of the killing [defendant] believed the circumstances to be such that if they existed would have justified or exonerated the killing under the said principles of self-defense, but his belief was unreasonable." Accordingly, the trial court reduced the offense of first degree murder to second degree murder based on the mitigating factor of an unreasonable belief in self-defense. The court entered judgment on a conviction of second degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-2(a)(2) (West 2008)).

         ¶ 13 Although defendant was a minor, the State never filed a written motion requesting that defendant be sentenced as an adult pursuant to section 5-130(1)(c)(ii) of the Act (705 ILCS 405/5-130(1)(c)(ii) (West 2008)). Nor did defendant object or argue at the time of sentencing that he should have been sentenced as a juvenile. Instead, the trial court and the parties proceeded directly to a sentencing hearing under the Unified Code of Corrections (730 ILCS 5/1-1-1 et seq. (West 2008)) pursuant to section 5-130(1)(c)(i) of the Act. Following the sentencing hearing, defendant was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment in the Illinois Department of Corrections with two years of mandatory supervised release. Defendant filed a motion to reconsider sentence arguing that his sentence was excessive. The trial court denied the motion.

         ¶ 14 On appeal, defendant argued, inter alia, that his adult sentence should be reversed because he was convicted of second degree murder, a non-automatic transfer offense and, thus, he should have been sentenced as a juvenile under section 5-130(1)(c)(ii). The appellate court rejected this argument and affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence. 2014 IL App (1st) 113315-U. The court held that a minor who is charged with first degree murder but convicted only of the uncharged offense of second degree murder is subject to mandatory adult sentencing under section 5-130(1)(c)(i) of the Act. Id. ¶¶ 29-33.

         ¶ 15 This court granted defendant's petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 315 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015). We have permitted the John Howard Association of Illinois, along with various other groups and individuals concerned with the fair sentencing of minors, to file a brief as amici curiae in support of defendant. Ill. S.Ct. R. 345 (eff. Sept. 20, 2010).

         ¶ 16 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 17 I. Plain Error

         ¶ 18 At the outset, we recognize that defendant failed to challenge the propriety of his adult sentence before the trial court. Defendant neither objected to his adult sentence at his sentencing hearing nor raised such a claim in his motion to reconsider sentence. Accordingly, this issue was forfeited and may not be considered on appeal unless it was plain error. Ill. S.Ct. R. 615(a) (eff. Jan. 1, 1967); People v. Bannister, 232 Ill.2d 52, 76 (2008) (to preserve a sentencing claim for appeal, a defendant must make a contemporaneous objection at the sentencing hearing and raise the issue in a postsentencing motion). The plain error doctrine is set forth in this court's jurisprudence as follows:

"[T]he plain-error doctrine bypasses normal forfeiture principles and allows a reviewing court to consider unpreserved error when either (1) the evidence is close, regardless of the seriousness of the error, or (2) the error is serious, regardless of the closeness of the evidence. In the first instance, the defendant must prove 'prejudicial error.' That is, the defendant must show both that there was plain error and that the evidence was so closely balanced that the error alone severely threatened to tip the scales of justice against him. *** In the second instance, the defendant must prove there was plain error and that the error was so serious that it affected the fairness of the defendant's trial and challenged the integrity of the judicial process. [People v. Keene, 169 Ill.2d 1, 17 (1995).] Prejudice to the defendant is presumed because of the importance of the right involved, 'regardless of the ...

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