April 6, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Central
District of Illinois. No. 14-4026 - James E. Shadid, Chief
Easterbrook, Manion, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
HAMILTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
habeas corpus case, state prisoner Douglas Oaks asks us to
hold that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to
choose his counsel. Because he procedurally defaulted that
claim during his state court proceedings, we affirm the
district court's denial of habeas relief without reaching
the merits of his claim.
Factual and Procedural Background
we resolve this case on procedural grounds, we describe its
procedural history in some detail. In 1992, petitioner
Douglas Oaks was indicted in Illinois for the murder of his
girlfriend's three-year-old son. Oaks had no income or
assets, but his family provided $2, 000 to retain an
attorney. That attorney asked the state trial court for state
funds for expert witnesses, including an investigator, a
forensic pathologist, a mitigation expert, and a
psychiatrist. The court denied the request, reasoning that if
Oaks could retain a lawyer, he was not entitled to
state-funded experts. The retained lawyer withdrew, asserting
that the ruling made him unable to represent his client
"in good conscience." The court appointed a public
defender to represent Oaks. In his eventual federal habeas
petition, the petition at issue in this appeal, Oaks argued
that the court's ruling deprived him of his Sixth
Amendment right to choice of counsel. See United States
v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 144 (2006) ("[A]n
element of [the right to counsel] is the right of a defendant
who does not require appointed counsel to choose who will
represent him.") (citations omitted).
a jury trial, Oaks was convicted of two counts of first
degree murder and one count of aggravated battery of a child.
He was sentenced to death. Oaks appealed his conviction and
sentence directly to the Illinois Supreme Court, which
vacated one of the convictions but otherwise affirmed,
leaving the sentence in place. People v. Oaks, 662
N.E.2d 1328, 1356 (Ill. 1996). He sought and was denied
rehearing in the Illinois Supreme Court, then sought and was
denied a writ of certiorari from the United States Supreme
Court. Oaks v. Illinois, 519 U.S. 873 (1996). Oaks
did not raise the choice of counsel issue at any stage of his
first raised that issue in a pro se post-conviction petition
filed in the state trial court. He simultaneously asserted
that his appellate counsel had been ineffective in failing to
raise the issue on direct appeal. The court appointed
post-conviction counsel, who filed an amended petition that
did not raise either the choice of counsel claim or the
appellate counsel claim. The trial court then dismissed the
petition as moot and lacking merit. Illinois' appellate
court partially reversed, remanding three issues for further
proceedings. (While the post-conviction proceedings were
pending, Oaks' death sentence was commuted to life in
prison. See People v. Oaks, 978 N.E.2d 1151, 1154 (
Ill. App. 2012).)
those proceedings, Oaks' counsel retired and other
attorneys were assigned. They sought leave to file a
supplemental post-conviction petition that again raised the
choice of counsel and ineffective assistance of appellate
counsel claims. The court denied leave, explaining that the
issue had been raised too late and (incorrectly) asserting
that it had already been litigated. The court also denied
Oaks' other claims on their merits.
appealed, arguing among other points that he should have been
allowed to pursue his choice of counsel and ineffective
assistance of appellate counsel claims. The Illinois
appellate court affirmed, finding no abuse of discretion in
the trial court's decision. Oaks, 978 N.E.2d at
1158. The Illinois Supreme Court denied leave to appeal,
People v. Oaks, 982 N.E.2d 773 (Ill. 2013), and Oaks
then filed a federal habeas petition.
federal habeas petition raised the choice of counsel issue
and the accompanying ineffective assistance of appellate
counsel issue. The district court denied the petition,
holding that those claims had been procedurally defaulted and
that they lacked merit. Oaks has appealed.
default is a defense to federal habeas corpus review.
Davila v. Davis, 582 U.S. ___, ___, 137 S.Ct. 2058,
2064 (2017). A petitioner's claim can be procedurally
defaulted if he fails to assert that claim throughout at
least one complete round of state-court review.
O'Sullivan v. Boerckel,526 U.S. 838, 845
(1999). Or it can be procedurally defaulted if the state
court rejects it on adequate and independent state law
grounds, including procedural grounds. Coleman v.
Thompson,501 U.S. 722, 729-30 (1991). So if "a
state court refuses to reach the merits of a petitioner's
federal claims because they were not raised in accord with