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Contreras v. Lashbrook

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

February 14, 2018

RUBEN CONTRERAS, Petitioner,
v.
JACQUELINE LASHBROOK, Warden, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In January 2009, Ruben Contreras was charged with the first degree murder of his estranged wife, Graciela Guijarro. Contreras admitted to detectives that he hugged Guijarro and covered her nose and mouth for several minutes during an argument so that she would not yell and attract the attention of neighbors or police. When he let go, Guijarro was dead. At trial, Contreras was represented by an attorney from the Lake County Public Defender's Office who argued that he lacked the requisite mental state to be found guilty of first degree murder. The trial judge instructed the jury on involuntary manslaughter and first degree murder. In April 2013, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of first degree murder, and the judge later sentenced Contreras to forty-eight years in prison.

         Contreras timely appealed his conviction. On appeal, he was represented by an attorney from the Office of the State Appellate Defender. Contreras presented the following arguments:

1) the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction for first degree murder;
2) his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction defining "knowledge" even though the only contested issue before the jury was his mental state;
3) the prosecution engaged in prosecutorial misconduct during closing argument by telling the jury that returning a verdict of guilty of involuntary manslaughter would be an injustice; and
4) his sentence was excessive.

         In October 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court rejected Contreras's claims and affirmed his conviction and sentence. See People v. Contreras, 2015 IL App (2d) 131048-U. With the assistance of counsel, Contreras filed a timely petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court in which he asserted only the prosecutorial misconduct claim. The court denied the petition in January 2016. Contreras did not file a petition for post-conviction relief in state court, and the time to do so has since expired. See 725 ILCS 5/122-1(c).

         Contreras has filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the sake of clarity, the Court will address Contreras's claims in a different order than they are presented in the petition. Contreras repeats three of the claims that he previously made on direct appeal: (1) the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for first degree murder, (2) his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction defining "knowledge" for purposes of the first degree murder charge, and (3) the prosecution engaged in prosecutorial misconduct during closing argument. He also contends that appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance when he failed to raise these first two claims through one complete round of the state court's appellate review process, by omitting them from the petition for leave to appeal (PLA). Contreras contends that it would be a "miscarriage of justice" for the Court to refuse to consider these procedurally defaulted claims on their merits. 2254 Mot. at 6. The Court also construes this contention as an argument that appellate counsel's alleged ineffective assistance constitutes cause for the default of Contreras's first two claims. See Id. (contending that "[b]ut for counsel's failure to preserve all his issues, the outcome of the case would reasonably [have] been different").[1]

         Respondent contends that there is no valid excuse for Contreras's procedural default of his first two claims and that relief is not warranted on the third claim (regarding prosecutorial misconduct) because the state court's decision on the issue was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law. Lastly, respondent argues that Contreras's ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim is non-cognizable because there is no constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel at the state discretionary appeal stage. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Contreras's petition.

         Discussion

         A state prisoner is entitled to a writ of habeas corpus "only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

         A. Insufficiency of the evidence and ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims

         A habeas corpus petitioner must give the state courts a full and fair opportunity to review and resolve his federal claims before a federal court may consider them on habeas corpus review. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 844-45 (1999). Thus, claims that were not fairly presented to the state courts through "one complete round of the State's established appellate review process"-either on direct appeal or in post-conviction proceedings-will be found to have been procedurally defaulted and thus will not be addressed on their merits in federal court. Id. at 845; see also Hicks v. Hepp, 871 F.3d 513, 530 (7th Cir. 2017) (to avoid procedural default, a petitioner must fairly present constitutional claims through one complete round of the state's appellate ...


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