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People v. Stephens

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division

December 14, 2017

NATHANIEL STEPHENS, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Nos. 01 CR 28427; 01 CR 28428 The Honorable Angela Munari Petrone, Judge, presiding.

          JUSTICE GORDON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Burke and Justice McBride concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 After a bench trial in Cook County circuit court, defendant Nathaniel Stephens, who was 19 years old at the time of the offense in 2001, was convicted of the first degree murder and aggravated battery of a 4-month-old infant. For reasons that we discuss below, defendant was sentenced three times. At the third and most recent sentencing on April 16, 2015, defendant was sentenced to a total of 29 years with the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). On this appeal, defendant raises challenges only to his 29-year sentence and asks this court (1) to reduce his sentence to the minimum, which is 26 years; (2) to remand for resentencing before a different judge; or (3) to order the reinstatement of his first sentence, which consisted of two concurrent 25-year sentences for his first degree murder and aggravated battery convictions. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In a prior opinion, we summarized the facts of this case as follows:

"During 2001, defendant was the sometime-live-in boyfriend of Trenatta Richardson, the mother of the four-month-old victim. On October 25, 2001, while defendant babysat her, the victim suffered a broken leg. The victim died from blunt trauma injuries on November 2, 2001, after being in defendant's care. On November 3, 2001, in a videotaped confession, defendant admitted to hitting the victim's head into a door frame three times and punching the victim in the ribs three times on November 2, 2001, to stop the victim from crying.
Defendant was charged in separate indictments with: (1) aggravated battery to a child for the incident on October 25, 2001, when the victim suffered a broken leg; and (2) first degree murder for the incident on November 2, 2001, when the victim died from blunt force trauma injuries." People v. Stephens, 2012 IL App (1st) 110296, ¶¶ 5-6.

         ¶ 4 In our prior opinion, we described in detail the evidence at trial, and we incorporate that opinion by reference. Stephens, 2012 IL App (1st) 110296, ¶¶ 38-60 (description of evidence at trial). Since there are no issues on this appeal regarding the evidence at trial, there is no need to repeat that description here.

         ¶ 5 As noted above, defendant was sentenced three times. After the bench trial, defendant was sentenced on August 30, 2005, to two concurrent sentences of 25 years with IDOC.[1]This is the initial sentence that defendant would now like restored.

         ¶ 6 At the sentencing hearing on August 30, 2005, the State entered into evidence two certified statements of conviction, for possession of a stolen motor vehicle and possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and then stated that it had "nothing further in terms of evidence for sentencing."

         ¶ 7 In mitigation, defense counsel argued that defendant was only 19 years old at the time of the offense and suffered from "mental retardation and mental handicaps" and thus deserved imposition of the minimum sentence. In response, the State argued that it had not "been established to any certainty that the defendant is, in fact, mentally retarded." The State observed that there were IQ tests in the record and conceded that the defense could argue diminished capacity but not mental retardation. The State also argued that this case marked defendant's fifth felony conviction, which, "at his young age" of 22, "makes him a career criminal." The State did not argue for a particular sentence or even a particular sentencing range but asked only for "an appropriate sentence."

         ¶ 8 The trial court then observed that defendant was convicted "of the offense of aggravated battery of a child which is a Class X offense with a range of sentence anywhere from six years to thirty years and also the offense of first degree murder on this child that carries with it a range of sentence beginning at 20 years."

         ¶ 9 As noted, after considering the factors in aggravation and mitigation, the trial court sentenced defendant to two concurrent 25-year sentences, with credit for time served.

         ¶ 10 After defendant received this sentence, the State argued on direct appeal that the trial court erred in sentencing defendant to concurrent sentences when consecutive sentences were statutorily required.[2] Stephens, 2012 IL App (1st) 110296, ¶ 64. On December 24, 2009, this court affirmed his convictions but agreed with the State that consecutive sentences were mandatory and that his concurrent sentences must be vacated.[3] People v. Stephens, No. 1-05-3365 (2009) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We explained: "When a trial court imposes concurrent sentences but consecutive sentences are mandatory, the sentencing order is void and the appellate court has the authority to correct the sentence 'at any time.' " Stephens, slip order at 27 (citing People v. Arna, 168 Ill.2d 107, 113 (1995)).[4] Concerning the resentencing, we instructed the trial court that "[i]t is within the trial court's discretion to determine the length of each sentence to be imposed, within the permissible statutory sentencing range." Stephens, slip order at 30. Our remand resulted in defendant's second sentence. Specifically on June 9, 2010, the trial court sentenced him to two consecutive 25-year sentences with IDOC.

         ¶ 11 However, the trial court issued this sentence without defendant or his counsel being present. Stephens, 2012 IL App (1st) 110296, ¶ 67. The entire proceeding consisted of the following statement by the trial court:

" 'THE COURT: These are the cases of Nathaniel Stephens. The defendant is not in court. For both the cases the Appellate Court mandate has been issued and the mandate-and the mandamus, excuse me, shall be spread of record on each of the cases. The mittimus is corrected.
Defendant sentenced to 25 years consecutive and it is nunc pro tunc to August 30th, 2005. Actually, let me phrase it this way: One case is 28427 and the other case is 28428. On 27 the sentence is 25 years Illinois Department of Corrections. On 28428 the sentence is 25 years Illinois Department of Corrections consecutive to 01 CR 28427. Both sentences are nunc pro tunc. Let me just add this little part too, on 28427, that sentence is on Count 3. And it will be off call.' " Stephens, 2012 IL App (1st) 110296, ¶ 121.

         ¶ 12 Subsequently, defendant filed a pro se postconviction petition, which was summarily dismissed. On the postconviction appeal, this court affirmed the dismissal of defendant's petition but vacated his two consecutive 25-year sentences due to the trial court's failure to hold a sentencing hearing. Stephens, 2012 IL App (1st) 110296, ¶ 123. We remanded for resentencing, observing that section 5-5-3(d) of the Unified Code of Corrections (Code) (730 ILCS 5/5-5-3(d) (West 2004)) provides in relevant part: "

'In any case in which a sentence originally imposed is vacated, the case shall be remanded to the trial court. The trial court shall hold a hearing under Section 5-4-1 of the Unified Code of Corrections which may include evidence of the defendant's life, moral character and occupation during the time since the original sentence was passed. The trial court shall then impose sentence upon the defendant.' " Stephens, 2012 IL App (1st) 110296, ¶ 123 (quoting 730 ILCS 5/5-5-3(d) (West 2004)).

         ¶ 13 Since it is this third sentencing that is at issue on this appeal, we describe it here in detail.

         ¶ 14 After we remanded the case a second time, it was assigned to a new trial judge pursuant to defendant's petition for substitution of judge. At the subsequent sentencing hearing held in 2015, the State did not call any witnesses but relied, in aggravation, on the seriousness of the offense and defendant's prior criminal history. Defendant's criminal history consisted of a total of five convictions, which were for the two convictions in the instant appeal, as well as three convictions for (1) possession of a stolen motor vehicle in 1999, (2) possession of a controlled substance in 2000, and (3) another possession of a controlled substance in 2001.

         ¶ 15 In mitigation, defendant called five witnesses: (1) Ewenell McCulough, a correctional agent with the Cook County sheriff's department; (2) Norlandi Young, a correctional agent at the Cook County jail; (3) Sheteila Allen, defendant's sister; (4) Melanie Porter, the mother of defendant's three children; and (5) Mary Porter, Melanie's mother and the grandmother of defendant's children.

         ¶ 16 Ewenell McCullough testified that he was a correctional sergeant with the Cook County sheriff's department and that he has worked at the Cook County jail for 24 years. McCullough was assigned for over a year to division one of the jail, where defendant was detained. The division one assignment was from "roughly" June 2013 through July 2014. During that time, defendant worked for McCullough cleaning up "the tier" and feeding the other detainees. McCullough described defendant as follows: "He was always cooperative. I never had a problem with him. I never gave him a disciplinary. He was always respectful and did his job."

         ¶ 17 Norlandi Young testified that she was also a correctional sergeant with the Cook County sheriff's department, where she had been employed for 17½ years. Young had worked in division one for three years and had known defendant for about two years. During that time, defendant had worked "for the tier" where he will "[c]lean the showers, clean the day room, mop, sweep the floors." Young described defendant as "[v]ery respectful, never had any problems with him." To her knowledge, defendant had not had a disciplinary action or ticket issued against him since he had been in division one.

         ¶ 18 On cross-examination, Young was asked whether, of the 1200 detainees in division, one, it was "fair to say that many are respectful?" Young responded: "It's not many." She explained that more detainees were disrespectful than respectful to the correctional officers. On redirect examination, Young testified that she would classify defendant's behavior as unusual and that, while tickets may be issued for many reasons including minor infractions, defendant did not have any tickets at the Cook County jail. Young testified that the Cook County jail was not an easy place to live and that inmates have altercations with each other but that she had never observed defendant in an altercation with anyone.

         ¶ 19 Sheteila Allen, defendant's sister, testified that she was 30 years old and had been employed for almost 10 years in housekeeping at the Fairmount Hotel. In school, defendant was in special education for a learning disability and had difficulty with reading and math and completing his homework. Her parents had told her that, when defendant was born, he had excess fluid on his brain. When defendant was a child, he had an unusually large head.

         ¶ 20 Allen testified that their mother and aunt shared a two-flat building and over 15 children lived there. Their mother was addicted to heroin and also used cocaine when Allen was five or six years old and continuing into Allen's teen years. Sometimes there was no food, and defendant "would go outside and do the things, like, maybe sell drugs or whatever to provide for us, to make sure that we ate" or had clothes or shoes. Although defendant received Social Security when he was a child, their mother received the money and would sometimes use it for her drug habit.

         ¶ 21 Allen testified that defendant had children who also had special needs and learning disabilities and who could not count well and were behind in school.

         ¶ 22 On cross-examination, Allen testified that defendant attended a regular Chicago public high school, from which he was expelled when he was arrested. When her parents lived together when she was younger, her family was close, and they went to a restaurant or movie once a month. Allen and her sisters and brothers did not have a good upbringing, and it was not "peaceful" due to heroin and cocaine use by her mother, sisters, and brothers.

         ¶ 23 On redirect, Allen testified that defendant was protective of their mother and considered it disrespectful to say bad things about her in public and, in particular, about her drug addiction.

         ¶ 24 Mary Porter testified that she was the mother of defendant's girlfriend and the grandmother of their three children. Porter first met defendant in 1997, when he was a teenager. When she first met him, she thought he was "slow" because "it just look like something, you know, was wrong with him." She "found out later, that something had happened to him when he was born." Since he had been in jail, defendant had called Porter twice a month, because he felt like his own mother had deserted him. Porter paid for the calls. Defendant's children would spend the night with Porter and speak to defendant when he called. During these calls, she told him to go to church and pray, and when he called back, he confirmed that he had gone to church. Porter stated that defendant was "very nice" and "very respectful" and that she never had "any trouble out of him."

         ¶ 25 Melanie Porter, the mother of defendant's three children, testified that she was 32 years old at the time of the hearing and that she first met defendant when she was 15 years old and they both attended the same high school. Defendant was in special education, and she was not. They had one class together, and defendant "couldn't catch on like the other kids, " and she would try to help him. When Melanie[5] went to defendant's home, she observed defendant's mother and her friends in the kitchen smoking cocaine "rocks." Melanie was aware that defendant received Social Security disability checks when he was in high school.

         ¶ 26 Melanie testified that, as a result of her first pregnancy, she and defendant had twin boys and Melanie and defendant were trying to figure out how to support them. The payee for defendant's Social Security checks was his mother, and his mother would give defendant less than half of the money. Melanie would ask defendant to ask his mother for more of the money, but he did not want to ask for more. Before Melanie had children, she was aware that defendant and his siblings would often lack food due to the mother's drug problem, and Melanie would let them eat at her house. Sometimes defendant would call his father, who would come over and bring a couple of dollars and leave.

         ¶ 27 Melanie testified that defendant always took his mother's side, he respected his mother, and he never did anything to hurt her feelings. The same was true of his father, who also had a drug problem. When defendant had money, he helped Melanie and the children. In 2015, at the time that Melanie testified at the hearing, the twin boys were 15 years old, and their daughter was 14 years old. All three have learning disabilities, similar to their father.

         ¶ 28 On cross-examination, Melanie testified that, despite the problems, defendant had a close family, his needs were addressed, and it was a peaceful existence. On redirect, Melanie testified that sometimes they lacked electricity and heat. Their building was family-owned, but defendant's mother was not able to maintain it. In addition to defendant's mother, other relatives used drugs in the home. Melanie testified that their family life was peaceful because, despite all their problems, they still loved each other. As for her own employment, Melanie had a seasonal job at Macy's from August to this past January and she was also self-employed as a hairdresser.

         ¶ 29 During closing argument, the State reviewed the evidence presented at trial. The State conceded that defendant had a low IQ and diminished capacity and lacked "an ideal life growing up" but argued that it was still not "okay to kill a child a four-not a child, an infant, your Honor. It doesn't allow him to kill this four-month and 3-week old infant, because she's screaming while he's playing video games."

         ¶ 30 During closing argument, the defense observed, among other things, that the mitigation report submitted to the court showed that defendant had encephalitis when he was two years old and presently had an IQ of 64. Defendant asked the trial court to sentence defendant to the same ...

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