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United States ex rel. Cullars v. Lashbrook

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

July 19, 2017

United States of America ex rel. STEVEN CULLARS, Petitioner,


          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY United States District Judge.

         Following 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 Cullars's petition.


         1. Proceedings before the trial court

         On July 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.

         During 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.

         On 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.

         Prior 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.

         The court sentenced Cullars to consecutive prison terms of forty-five and six years on the murder and kidnapping offenses. Id. ¶ 2.

         2. Direct appeal

         Cullars 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 doubt.

Id. ¶ 23.

         Regarding 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. ΒΆ 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 ...

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