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Oaks v. Pfister

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 14, 2017

Douglas Oaks, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
Randy Pfister, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued April 6, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 14-4026 - James E. Shadid, Chief Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Manion, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          HAMILTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         In this 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.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Because 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).

         Following 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 direct appeal.

         Oaks 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).)

         During 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.

         Oaks 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.

         The 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.

         II. Analysis

         Procedural 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 ...


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