United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
United States of America ex rel. STEVEN CULLARS, Petitioner,
JACQUELINE LASHBROOK, Warden, Respondent.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTHEW F. KENNELLY United States District Judge.
a jury trial in Illinois state court, Steven Cullars was
convicted of first degree murder and kidnapping and was
sentenced to consecutive prison terms of forty-five and six
years. Cullars has filed a pro se petition for a
writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He asserts
that 1) trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in
violation of the Sixth Amendment; 2) the trial court denied
him due process and a fair trial by restricting his ability
to present evidence of significant probative value and
failing to conduct a competency hearing; and 3) the trial
court denied him the opportunity to cross-examine a witness
in violation of the Fifth Amendment's Confrontation
Clause. For the following reasons, the Court denies
Proceedings before the trial court
20, 2008, Cullars met with his ex-girlfriend, Kimberly
Foucher, and offered to return some of Foucher's items.
People v. Cullars, 2013 IL App (1st) 110074- U,
¶ 3. Cullars then drove Foucher to the garage behind her
mother's house, "beat her unconscious with his
fists, strangled her with a belt, and stomped on her
throat." Id. After killing Foucher, Cullars
went to a liquor store twice to purchase alcohol.
Id. Cullars then called his friend, detective Earl
Parks. Id. Cullars left Parks a voicemail message,
saying, "that he had just killed Kim and that he
wanted-he wasn't playing, he was serious and  to call
him right back. Id. ¶ 6. When Parks arrived at
the garage, Cullars approached him saying, "I can't
believe I killed her." Id. ¶ 7. Cullars
was taken into custody, where he confessed on video to
killing Foucher. People v. Cullars, 2016 IL App
(1st) 132951-U, ¶ 13.
proceedings before the trial court, Cullars was represented
by the Cook County Public Defender's office.
Cullars's trial counsel sought to suppress his video
confession, arguing that his statements were not made
voluntarily because he was "intoxicated, depressed[, ]
and suicidal." Resp't Ex. K at ¶ 50-51. At the
hearing on the motion, Cullars's attorney stated that
"there will be evidence that [Cullars] was intoxicated
and also that he was suffering from [a] mental illness."
Cullars, 2016 IL App (1st) 132951-U, ¶ 13.
After having Cullars examined by an expert, defense counsel
opted not to call the expert to testify at trial on
Cullars's mental health or to bring an insanity defense.
Id. ¶ 14. Instead, defense counsel asserted a
defense of self-defense. Resp't Ex. Q at ¶ 12-13. In
response, the prosecution filed a motion in limine
asking the trial court to preclude Cullars from introducing
evidence regarding his mental health, namely, evidence that
he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the past.
Resp't Ex. K at ¶ 192, ¶ 5-6. The trial court
ruled that "[t]here's a defense on file, an
affirmative defense of self-defense, there's no mental
health experts testifying here. [Cullars's] mental
illness is simply not at play or issue in this case, and I
believe it would just be some type of red herring in the
case, not supported by expert testimony, so I don't find
that it is relevant." Resp't Ex. L at ¶ 13.
October 21, 2010, a jury found Cullars guilty of first degree
murder and kidnapping. Cullars, 2016 IL App (1st)
132951-U, ¶ 3. Defense counsel filed a motion for a new
trial based, in part, on the trial judge's ruling
excluding evidence about Cullars's mental health.
Resp't Ex. K at ¶ 192 ¶ 5-6. The court denied
the motion. Resp't Ex. R at ¶ 9.
to the sentencing hearing, defense counsel filed an addendum
to the pre-sentence investigation report, asking the court to
consider Cullars's mental health as a mitigating factor.
Resp't Ex. K at ¶ 193. In reviewing all the
mitigating and aggravating factors, the court noted that it
would consider Cullars's mental health history.
Cullars, 2013 IL App (1st) 110074-U, ¶ 15.
court sentenced Cullars to consecutive prison terms of
forty-five and six years on the murder and kidnapping
offenses. Id. ¶ 2.
filed a direct appeal, challenging the sufficiency of the
evidence on his kidnapping charge. Id. ¶ 16. He
also sought to vacate his sentence, arguing that the trial
court considered improper aggravating factors. Id.
¶ 26. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the
convictions and sentence. Id. ¶ 1. Regarding
the sufficiency of the evidence, the court concluded:
[A] reasonable jury could find from the evidence presented
that defendant deceitfully lured Foucher into his car, and
drove her to the garage with the intent secretly to confine
her against her will, thus proving him guilty of kidnapping
under subsection (a)(3), as charged, beyond a reasonable
Id. ¶ 23.
the sentence, the court reviewed Cullars's claim for
plain error, as Cullars conceded that he failed to properly
preserve the issue for review. Id. ¶ 26. The
court stated that "[t]o obtain relief under the plain
error rule, [Cullars] must show that a clear or obvious error
occurred, and that the evidence at the sentencing hearing was
closely balanced, or the error was so serious as to deny him
a fair sentencing hearing." Id. ¶ 27. The
court found that "[s]ince serious harm is clearly
implicit in the offense of first degree murder, the trial
court erred in stating that it was an applicable factor in
aggravation." Id. ¶ 30. The court
nonetheless affirmed the sentence. It stated that
"[w]here it can be determined from the record that the
weight placed on the improper factor was so insignificant
that it did not lead to a greater sentence, remandment [sic]
is not required." Id. ¶ 31. The court
observed that the trial court "engaged in an extensive
discussion of the applicability of each of the statutory
factors in aggravation and mitigation"; it found that
there were no mitigating factors present other than
Cullars's mental health history; and it sentenced Cullars
to a term of imprisonment "near the ...