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Estrada v. Lashbrook

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

October 25, 2017

BRYAN ESTRADA, Petitioner,



         Petitioner Bryan Estrada has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 alleging a variety of errors in connection with his trial for murder, including ineffective assistance of counsel and sufficiency of the evidence. None of his arguments are meritorious given the high bar for federal habeas relief, so the petition is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         A. Factual Background

         Petitioner Bryan Estrada was convicted in 2009 by an Illinois jury of first degree murder, attempted murder, and personally discharging a firearm during both offenses. People v. Estrada, 2012 IL App (1st) 100265-U, ¶ 2 (Ill.App.Ct. 2012). He was sentenced to a total of 80 years in prison. Id. The convictions stemmed from a March 25, 2007 incident in which Luis Villegas was shot and killed. Id. at ¶¶ 2, 4. A second victim, Edgar Martinez, was in a car with Villegas when the shooting occurred but was not hit by the gunfire. Id.

         Estrada was tried with codefendant Rufino Castillo (although each had a separate jury). Estrada, 2012 IL App (1st) 100265-U, ¶¶ 2, 4. Rufino's brother, James Castillo, was originally charged in the murder, but those charges were dropped in favor of lesser charges. Id. at ¶ 4. James testified against Estrada in exchange for the reduced charges. Id. at ¶ 18. Specifically, James testified that Estrada had been his neighbor in the late 1990s and early 2000. Estrada, 2012 IL App (1st) 100265-U, ¶ 19. Estrada called James on the day of the murder and asked if he wanted to “go cruising.” Id. Estrada, accompanied by an individual James knew only as “Carlos, ” met up with James and Rufino at a nearby carwash. Id. After driving in their separate cars to the neighborhood where the murder would later take place, Estrada and Carlos parked their cars and got into Rufino's Ford Contour. Id. At some point, Rufino said he was tired and James began driving. Id. At the time of the shooting, Estrada was seated behind James on the driver's side while Carlos was seated on the passenger's side behind Rufino. Id.

         James testified that after driving for 30 to 45 minutes, he drove down an alley between Lawndale and Monticello in Chicago. Estrada, 2012 IL App (1st) 100265-U, ¶ 20. Right before he got to the intersection, a dark SUV blocked them. Id. James testified he saw the SUV door crack open slightly and then heard gunshots coming from behind him. Id. He went down for cover and heard the door behind him close, which led him to know Estrada was the shooter. Id. Estrada then started shouting at James to get out of there, which both vehicles did. Id. Estrada told James repeatedly to drop him off, which James did shortly thereafter. Id. During James' testimony, Estrada's counsel was permitted to question James about whether his brother Rufino had been charged in the shooting, but was not allowed to ask whether or not James would be testifying against Rufino. Id. at ¶ 21.

         Victim Edgar Martinez testified that on the day of the shooting, he and Villegas had been driving a Chevy Tahoe when they saw a red car with Rufino and James in the front seat. Estrada, 2012 IL App (1st) 100265-U, ¶ 5. Martinez had known them for years from living in the same neighborhood. Id. He testified that he and Villegas were members of the Spanish Gangster Disciples gang while Rufino and James were members of the rival Imperial Gangsters. Id. at ¶ 6. Martinez and Villegas went to find and “mess with” the Castillo brothers, stopping at an alley intersection where they saw the red car. Id. They began “throwing gang signs” and the people in the red car responded in kind. Id. Martinez testified that a passenger then got out of the back seat on the driver's side and began shooting at Martinez and Villegas. Id. Martinez further testified that when the shooting started, he drove off before stopping a few blocks away to make sure Villegas was okay. Id. ¶ 7. Villegas had been hit in the head by a bullet, so Martinez called 911. Id. When police arrived, Martinez went with them to the police station and identified James and Rufino in a photo array. Id. The next day, Martinez identified Estrada from a second photo array as the shooter. Id. He identified Rufino in a lineup the same day and Estrada in another lineup a few days later. Id. Martinez also identified Estrada as the shooter at trial. Id. ¶ 6.

         Other witnesses confirmed that Rufino had been driving a red Ford Contour on the day in question, and that a red car with four young men in it had passed near the alley in question twice just before the shooting. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. Police officers gave further supporting evidence, including testimony that Villegas and Martinez had been in a black SUV, that Martinez originally described the shooter as a Hispanic male, and that there were no weapons inside the SUV. Id. ¶ 12-13. A spent shell casing was recovered from the outside windshield area of the Ford Contour, which matched shell casings found in the alley and were fired from the same weapon. Id. ¶ 14.

         Two investigating police officers confirmed that Martinez had identified James, Rufino, and Estrada in photo arrays and lineups. Id. ¶ 15-17. They stated that Carlos Vasquez was in the lineup with Martinez, but Vasquez was not identified. Id. ¶ 17. Officer Suvada testified he understood that Vasquez was the fourth person in the car, but he was never charged in the shooting. Id.

         The evidence linking Estrada to the murder was not without some warts, however. One of the photos used in the array from which Martinez identified Estrada was marked “IG Chino” on the back. Id. ¶ 15. Both the officers and Martinez stated that the photo, which was not of Estrada, was not the photo selected by Martinez and that they did not know who had marked the photo. Id. Martinez apparently knew Estrada through his younger brothers, but did not identify him by name in the first encounter he had with police (as he did with James and Rufino). Id. ¶¶ 8-9. There was conflicting evidence as to what haircut Martinez initially told police the shooter had. Id. ¶¶ 8-9, 15, 24-27. James and Martinez's accounts also differed on certain details, such as whether the windows of the SUV were up or down and whether they had flashed gang signs prior to the shooting. Id. ¶ 33.

         B. Procedural Background

         Estrada appealed his conviction, arguing that: the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict; the trial court had failed to ask the venire whether they accepted the principles of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 431(b); and the trial court had erred in not allowing James to be questioned about whether he would testify against his brother. Id. ¶ 1. The appellate court rejected all of these contentions. It found the evidence was sufficient and that the flaws in the evidence were presented to the jury. Id. ¶ 34. It found that although failure to explicitly ask all of the questions in Rule 431(b) was erroneous, trial counsel had failed to preserve the issue and the case was not so closely balanced that the error merited reversing the jury's verdict. Id. at ¶ 43. Finally, the appellate court concluded that the trial court was within its discretion to prohibit questions about whether James would testify against his brother because “the jury was well aware of James' bias, interest, or motive to testify falsely.” Id. ¶ 46.

         Estrada then filed a petition for leave to appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court, raising only his Rule 431(b) and sufficiency of the evidence claims. See Pet. for Leave to Appeal, Ex. F at 3-4, ECF No. 11-1. The petition for leave to appeal was summarily denied on September 26, 2012. See Id. at 21. Through counsel, Estrada then filed a state petition for post-conviction relief, arguing only that his right to effective assistance of counsel had been violated ...

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