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Riley v. Lashbrook

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

March 23, 2017

EUGENE RILEY, III, Plaintiff,
v.
JACQUELINE LASHBROOK, [1] Warden, Menard Correctional Center, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          REBECCA R. PALLMEYER, United States District Judge

         Petitioner Eugene Riley is a prisoner in the custody of Respondent Jacqueline Lashbrook, warden of Menard Correctional Center. Petitioner was convicted of first-degree felony murder in Illinois state court on May 9, 2011. Having exhausted his remedies in state court, Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He contends that the trial court failed to instruct the jury about all the elements of his claim and that he was therefore denied his Sixth Amendment right to have a jury determine his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He also contends that his counsel's failure to request the proper jury instructions deprived Petitioner of his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. Respondent argues that Petitioner has procedurally defaulted on his claim that the state trial court's jury instructions were inadequate. In the alternative, Respondent contends that the claim is not cognizable in federal court. Respondent also argues that Petitioner's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is meritless. For the reasons stated below, the court concludes that neither of Petitioner's claims has merit and therefore denies the petition.

         BACKGROUND

         The court takes the following facts from the Illinois Appellate Court's decision affirming Petitioner's conviction. See People v. Riley, 2013 IL App (1st) 112464-U (1st Dist. 2013).[2] On the afternoon of September 24, 2009, a fight broke out among high school students near a community center in the Roseland neighborhood in Chicago. Id. at ¶ 3. One of the students, Derrion Albert, died as a result of injuries he suffered during the fight. Id. at ¶ 4. Three men were charged in connection with the homicide: Petitioner, Eric Carson, and Silvonus Shannon. Id. at ¶ 4. Though Petitioner was initially charged with counts of first-degree murder and mob action, the State dropped those counts before trial, leaving only one count for felony murder, predicated on the crime of mob action. Id.

         I. Trial

         The evidence at trial included the eyewitness testimony of T-Awannda Piper, an employee of the community center, who said she witnessed the fight from roughly twelve feet away through a window of the community center. Id. at ¶ 6. Piper said she saw the victim fall to his knees after a young man hit him over the head with a board. Id. at ¶ 5. When the victim tried to get up, Piper testified, another young man punched the victim in the face, and a third young man began to kick the victim. Id. Piper went outside to try and break up the fight and eventually dragged the victim, who still had a pulse, into the community center before an ambulance arrived and took him away. Id. at ¶ 6. The victim died of his injuries before detectives working on the case arrived at the hospital. Id. at ¶ 8.

         The State also presented video footage[3] of the beating at trial. The footage showed Petitioner hitting an unidentified young man wearing a white shirt several times. Id. at ¶ 11. It also showed an unidentified man using a board to hit both Petitioner and the victim, both of whom were wearing black shirts. Id. The video continued, showing a young man swinging a board at Petitioner's brother and then throwing the board at another man wearing a white shirt. Id. at ¶ 12. After the time when the board was swung at his brother, Petitioner can be seen on the video picking up the board and running after people. Id. Two other young men are shown kicking the victim, who had fallen to the ground after being hit in the head. Id. at ¶ 13. After Petitioner's brother walks away from the scene, the video shows, Petitioner runs toward the victim, by now lying on the ground, and hits him over the head with a board. Id. Other young men continued to kick the victim while Petitioner struck the victim with the board again. Id.

         One of the students present during this episode testified at trial, identifying the actors in a slowed-down version of the video. He testified that Eric Carson was the young man who hit the victim with a board, causing him to fall down; Deonte Johnson was the person who punched the victim when he tried to get back up; Silvonus Shannon was the young man who kicked the victim; and Petitioner was the person who hit the victim over the head with a board while he was on the ground. Id. ¶ 16. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the victim testified that she believed the victim died of cerebral injuries "caused by blunt head trauma as a result of assault." Id. ¶ 20. During cross-examination, the medical examiner testified that it was possible the initial blows to the victim's head would have killed him independently of any other injury. Id. ¶ 21.

         The jury also viewed a videotape of an interview police conducted with Petitioner three days after the fight. During the interview, Petitioner recounted that he and his brother went to pick up their cousin Silvonus from school on the day of the fight. Id. ¶ 9. He told the police there had been "talk" that Silvonus was going to be "jumped" after school, and after Petitioner and his brother picked Silvonus up, they saw "some dudes" make gestures at their car. Id. When the young men approached Petitioner's brother and Silvonus, who had exited the car, Petitioner explained that he got out of the car and "ran towards them and we just started fighting, whatever." Id. Though Petitioner initially denied hitting anyone, police confronted him with the video footage of the beating, which appeared to show Petitioner striking the victim with a board. Id. at ¶ 10. Petitioner explained that he was not trying to hit the victim and was just trying to defend himself and his brother. Id.

         Petitioner also testified at trial. He admitted that he when he got out of his car, he started swinging at a young man who had pinned his brother to the ground. Id. ¶ 27. He also admitted that after someone hit him with a stick and threw the stick at his brother, Petitioner hit the victim. Id. Petitioner explained that he did so because he was afraid and did not know what was going on. Id. Petitioner also acknowledged that while the victim was unarmed on the ground with his arms up, Silvonus kicked him, and Petitioner struck the victim over the head twice with a board. Id. ¶ 28.

         At the close of evidence, the trial court denied defense counsel's request to instruct the jury on counts of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder. Petitioner's counsel also requested instructions for mob action and aggravated battery as lesser included offenses, but the trial court denied that request as well. The jury found Petitioner guilty of felony murder, and on July 19, 2011, the trial court sentenced him to a 32-year term of imprisonment. Petitioner filed a timely appeal in state court, arguing that his conviction should be reversed because (1) mob action, the predicate felony for his felony murder conviction, was inherent in the murder and thus could not be a predicate act to support a felony murder charge; (2) the trial court failed to instruct the jury that the predicate act in a felony murder charge must have a felonious purpose independent of the murder; (3) defense counsel's failure to request an instruction regarding independent felonious purpose constituted ineffective assistance of counsel; and (4) the trial court failed to ask potential jurors whether they understood and accepted all four Zehr principles as required by Illinois Supreme Court Rule 431(b).[4]

         II. Decision of the Illinois Appellate Court

         The state appellate court rejected Petitioner's arguments and upheld his conviction. The court acknowledged that under Illinois law, "where the acts constituting forcible felonies arise from and are inherent in the act of murder itself, those acts cannot serve as predicate felonies for a charge of felony murder." People v. Davison, 236 Ill.2d 232, 240, 923 N.E.2d 781, 786 (2010). But the court disagreed with Petitioner's assertion that the State's only evidence of mob action was the same evidence the State presented for the murder charge: namely, that Petitioner hit the victim over the head with a board. Riley, 2013 IL App (1st) 112464-U, at ¶ 37. Rather, the court explained, the evidence showed that Petitioner acted with others to use force or violence to disturb the public peace by engaging in a fight with people other than the victim, such that he had completed the predicate felony of mob action even before hitting the victim with a board. Id. ¶ 43. Although Petitioner asserted that all of his actions leading up to hitting the victim with the board were part of an attempt to defend his brother, the court noted that the jury was under no obligation to believe that testimony, which was in apparent conflict with the other evidence. Id. Thus, the court concluded, the evidence at trial established that Petitioner "was acting with others to use force or violence to disturb the public peace, and thus acted with the felonious purpose to commit mob action, " and that the conduct constituting the mob action was not inherent in the murder itself. Id. at ¶¶ 47-48.

         The court also rejected Petitioner's argument that the trial court committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury that the predicate felony of the felony-murder charge must have a felonious purpose independent of that for the murder. Petitioner forfeited this argument, the court concluded, because defense counsel never asked for an instruction regarding "felonious purpose." Id. at ¶ 51. Petitioner argued on appeal that, whether or not his counsel requested an instruction, the trial court should have given an instruction regarding independent felonious purpose sua sponte because the existence of such a purpose is an element of the crime of felony murder. See People v. Turner, 128 Ill.2d 540, 562-63, 539 N.E.2d 1196, 1205 (1989) ("Generally, the only situations where a fair trial requires the court to sua sponte offer an instruction include seeing that the jury is instructed on the elements of the crime charged . . . .") (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court disagreed that an independent felonious purpose is an ...


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