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People v. Sweet

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

September 8, 2017

DEREK I. SWEET, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 9th Judicial Circuit, McDonough County, Illinois. Circuit No. 01-CF-141 Honorable Dwayne Morrison and Richard Gambrell, Judges, presiding.

          CARTER JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Lytton and Schmidt concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 Defendant, Derek I. Sweet, appeals the denial of his postconviction petition after a third- stage evidentiary hearing. On appeal, defendant argues this court should reverse the trial court's denial of his postconviction petition because he was denied the reasonable assistance of postconviction counsel where his postconviction counsel failed to present any evidence in support of his claim that his trial counsel, Gayle Carper, was operating under a per se conflict of interest at the time of defendant's guilty plea. Defendant also appeals the dismissal of his petition for relief from judgment filed pursuant to section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-1401 (West 2012)), arguing that (1) the trial court erroneously dismissed the 2-1401 petition and (2) the trial court abused its discretion by denying defendant's request for counsel to be appointed for representation on his 2-1401 petition. We affirm both the denial of defendant's postconviction petition and the dismissal of his petition for relief from judgment.

         ¶ 2 FACTS

         ¶ 3 A. Background

         ¶ 4 On September 10, 2001, at the age of 25, defendant was charged with first-degree murder of two-year-old Faith Hamann. The charging instrument was subsequently amended, alleging that defendant had "without lawful justification, bent Faith Hamann backwards, bending her back, causing a separation of the vertebrae and a torn aorta, knowing such acts created a strong probability of great bodily harm to Faith Hamann, thereby causing the death of Faith Hamann." Defendant was represented by John Carter, a public defender.

         ¶ 5 On October 1, 2001, after a preliminary hearing, defendant pled not guilty. On August 5, 2002, Carter withdrew as counsel for defendant due to a conflict of interest. The trial court appointed Gayle Carper as defendant's new counsel.

         ¶ 6 On December 3, 2002, defendant's jury trial began. On the first day of trial, the State's evidence showed that defendant and his girlfriend, Sarah, were living together with Sarah's two children-seven-year-old Logan and two-year-old Faith. On the evening of Faith's death, Sarah had gone out to run errands, leaving the children with defendant. Twenty minutes later defendant called 9-1-1 because Faith was not breathing. Upon arrival at the home, the police chief observed Faith lying on the kitchen counter, unresponsive, and defendant standing next to her. Defendant appeared panicked and upset. Defendant initially indicated that Faith was in bed when he heard a thud, he found her face down, and she was not breathing. An autopsy showed Faith had a torn aorta, which caused her to bleed to death internally, and she had an abnormal separation of the vertebrae caused by a forced hyperextension of her body backwards. A medical doctor opined that a massive amount of force was required to cause the injuries to Faith and death would come within minutes of the injuries. Defendant informed an investigator that he had picked up Faith while she was face down, with her feet in one hand and her head in his other hand, and he bent her up so that her feet touched her head until he heard her back snap.

         ¶ 7 On the second day of trial, the prosecutor indicated that he would be calling one more witness to testify. The trial court announced it had been informed that defendant wished to withdraw his plea of not guilty and, instead, enter a plea of guilty. The trial court admonished defendant in relation to his guilty plea and the sentencing range for the murder charge. The trial judge asked defendant if he understood that the charge against him carried a penalty range of 20 to 100 years of imprisonment, to which defendant responded, "Yes, sir." The trial judge asked defendant if he was telling the court that on September 7, 2001, he had bent Faith Hamann back, causing a fracture to the spine and a torn aorta, without lawful justification, knowing that action created a strong probability of causing her death, and that he committed the alleged offense. Defendant responded, "Yes, sir." The trial court accepted defendant's plea of guilty.

         ¶ 8 On March 7, 2003, the trial court sentenced defendant, who was then 27 years old, to 50 years of imprisonment. Carper filed a motion, on defendant's behalf, for the trial court to reconsider the sentence

         ¶ 9 Prior to a hearing on the motion to reconsider sentence filed by Carper, defendant filed a pro se motion to reconsider the sentence and a pro se motion to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging that Carper had failed to investigate his defense and had coerced him into pleading guilty by telling him he would get a 20-year sentence if he pled guilty and a life sentence if he did not plead guilty. In support of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, defendant claimed that he received inadequate representation of counsel because Carper should have presented a defense but, instead, "she did not say anything whatsoever to counter balance the States Attorney's unfounded evidence, for this crime [he] did not commit." Defendant further claimed that he was coerced into pleading guilty by Carper, who told defendant that the judge felt sorry for him, felt he had shown enough remorse, looked at defendant as if he were his own son sitting in defendant's chair, felt defendant was not involved in Faith's death, and felt that even if defendant were involved in Faith's death, it was an accident and not intentional. Defendant also argued that Carper told him that if he refused to enter an open plea of guilty, he was going to get a life sentence. Defendant further claimed that a thorough investigation of the crime was not completed.

         ¶ 10 In his motion for reduction of sentence, defendant indicated that his sentence should be reduced because, among other things, (1) his attorney "should have presented a defense period" and his attorney "didn't say anything whatsoever to counter balance the State Attorney's unfounded evidence"; (2) a thorough investigation had not been done, over 200 names were given and no one checked them out, and "no full or any defense investigation period"; and (3) his attorney had guaranteed him "an easy and short 20 year sentence" and he feels his counsel violated his rights and "took prime advantage of [him] not knowing the law or laws of the nature of [the] crime committed."

         ¶ 11 On April 21, 2003, Carper filed a motion to withdraw as defendant's counsel. In the motion, Carper indicated that defendant's pro se motions contained false allegations regarding her representation and that her continued representation of defendant "would violate several Rules of Professional Conduct, " with Carper citing to Rules 1.16, 2.1, and 6.2 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct of 2010 (Ill. R. Prof'l Conduct (2010) Rs. 1.16, 2.1, 6.1 (eff. Jan. 1, 2010)). Carper indicated that Rule 6.2 provided that a lawyer should not seek to avoid the appointment to represent a person, except for good cause, such as when representing the client will likely violate the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct or when "the client or the cause is so repugnant to the lawyer as to be likely to impair the client-lawyer relationship or lawyer's ability to represent the client."

         ¶ 12 The hearing on Carper's motion to withdraw took place on June 6, 2003. Carper indicated that on the day she came to court to argue the motion to reconsider sentence she had filed, she was informed that defendant had filed several pro se motions. Carper further indicated that that bulk of defendant's allegations in his pro se motions pertained to her representation. She stated, "because I consider those allegations in his motions to be false, I feel that it would be, it would be requiring me to violate a number of rules of professional conduct to continue to represent him, " and she referenced Rules of Professional Conduct 1.16, 2.1 and 6.2. The trial court asked defendant if he objected to Carper withdrawing as his counsel. Defendant stated, "I have no problem with that, sir." The trial court appointed Heidi Benson as defendant's new counsel. Benson filed posttrial motions on behalf of defendant, which the trial court denied.

         ¶ 13 Defendant appealed, arguing that his guilty plea should be vacated as having been entered unknowingly and involuntarily due to the trial court's failure to admonish him properly. He also argued that the requirement for those convicted of first degree murder of a child to register as a sex offender was unconstitutional. Defendant's conviction and sentence were affirmed, with this court rejecting his argument that his plea was unknowing and involuntary and rejecting his constitutional challenge to the sex ...

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