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People v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

May 11, 2018

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
CORDELL WILLIAMS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 94 CR 15518 Honorable Vincent M. Gaughan, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE CUNNINGHAM delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Connors and Delort concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          CUNNINGHAM JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 The defendant, Cordell Williams, was found guilty of two counts of first degree murder based upon the theory of accountability and sentenced to mandatory natural life in prison without the possibility of parole. In three prior appeals, this court affirmed his conviction, the summary dismissal of his postconviction petition, and the dismissal of his first successive postconviction petition. The defendant then filed a motion for leave to file a second successive postconviction petition, arguing that his mandatory life sentence violated both the United States and the Illinois Constitutions. The circuit court denied his motion, and the defendant now appeals. For the following reasons, we vacate the defendant's sentence, remand this case to the circuit court for a new sentencing hearing, and instruct the circuit court to issue an amended mittimus reflecting a sentencing credit of 441 days.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In May 1994, the defendant was 19 years old and a member of a street gang. Shortly after midnight on May 26, 1994, he was driving his mother's car with three other gang members as passengers. One of those passengers, 17-year-old David Evans, told the defendant that he saw rival gang members inside a restaurant. Evans told the defendant to stop the car and open the trunk, and the defendant complied. Evans exited the car, retrieved a gun from the trunk, and proceeded to fatally shoot two people inside the restaurant. After the shootings, Evans returned to the car, and the defendant drove him and the other passengers away from the scene.

         ¶ 4 The defendant was charged with first degree murder pursuant to Illinois's accountability statute, which provides that "[a] person is legally accountable for the conduct of another when *** [e]ither before or during the commission of an offense, and with the intent to promote or facilitate such commission, he solicits, aids, abets, agrees or attempts to aid, such other person in the planning or commission of the offense." 720 ILCS 5/5-2 (West 1994). After trial, a jury found the defendant guilty of first degree murder based on the theory of accountability.

         ¶ 5 The applicable sentencing statute at the time allowed a court, in first degree murder cases, to sentence the defendant to a term of natural life imprisonment where the defendant "is found guilty of murdering more than one victim." 730 ILCS 5/5-8-1(a)(1)(c)(ii) (West 1994). Accordingly, in August 1995, the circuit court sentenced the defendant to natural life in prison without the possibility of parole.

         ¶ 6 The defendant has engaged in extensive postconviction litigation. First, the defendant directly appealed his conviction. We affirmed his conviction and sentence on March 26, 1999. People v. Williams, 303 Ill.App.3d 1103 (1999) (table) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23). The defendant then filed his first postconviction petition in March 2000, alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. We affirmed the circuit court's dismissal of his first postconviction petition on September 6, 2002. People v. Williams, 333 Ill.App.3d 1214 (2002) (table) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23). Two weeks later, the defendant filed his first successive postconviction petition claiming actual innocence on the basis of new evidence. The circuit court dismissed that petition, and we affirmed the circuit court's dismissal on September 9, 2004. People v. Williams, 351 Ill.App.3d 1171 (2004) (table) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23). The defendant next filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in April 2008, alleging, among other claims, that his due process rights were violated because he did not have an opportunity to respond to the prosecution's argument on accountability and that his sentence was unconstitutional. The circuit court dismissed the habeas corpus petition, and we affirmed that dismissal on December 15, 2009, finding no issues of arguable merit. People v. Williams, 395 Ill.App.3d 1120 (2009) (table) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23).

         ¶ 7 On October 18, 2011, the defendant filed a pro se petition titled "Motion to Vacate Void Judgment"[1] pursuant to section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-1401 (West 2010)). In the section 2-1401 petition, the defendant alleged, inter alia, that his natural life sentence is void because the sentencing statute was declared unconstitutional under the single-subject clause (Ill. Const. 1970, art. IV, § 8(d)). The circuit court found the section 2-1401 petition untimely, found that the defendant's claims were barred as res judicata, and dismissed the section 2-1401 petition. In 2012, after the circuit court's dismissal of the 2-1401 petition, but before the defendant's appeal from that dismissal was decided, the United States Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), which held that mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the eighth amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. On appeal, the defendant relied on Miller to argue that his mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as applied to him under the federal and state constitutions, and that he is entitled to credit against his sentence for time served in presentence custody. On July 14, 2014, this court affirmed the circuit court's dismissal of the section 2-1401 petition, finding that the defendant's petition was untimely and that its claims were barred by res judicata. People v. Williams, 2014 IL App (1st) 120796-U, ¶¶ 26-27. We acknowledged that Miller was decided after the defendant filed his section 2-1401 petition; however, we did not address the merits of his claim under Miller, or his request for credit for time spent in presentence custody. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. We explained that a postconviction petition, and not a section 2-1401 petition, was the appropriate method for collaterally attacking a sentence on constitutional grounds. Id. ¶ 28.

         ¶ 8 The instant appeal stems from the defendant's December 2014 pro se motion for leave to file a second successive postconviction petition (the motion). The denial of the motion to file his petition is the subject of this appeal. In the motion, the defendant argued that he should be allowed leave to file a second successive postconviction petition because his mandatory sentence of natural life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as applied to him in light of Miller. The defendant's motion claimed that he satisfied the cause-and-prejudice requirements needed to grant leave to file a successive postconviction petition under section 122-1(f) of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1963. 725 ILCS 5/122-1(f) (West 2014) (courts may grant leave to file a successive postconviction petition only where a defendant "shows cause by identifying an objective factor that impeded his or her ability to raise a specific claim during his or her initial post-conviction proceedings" and "shows prejudice by demonstrating that the claim not raised during his or her initial post-conviction proceedings so infected the trial that the resulting conviction or sentence violated due process"). With respect to "cause, " the defendant argued that he could not have raised this claim earlier because the primary authority he relied upon, Miller, was not decided until 2012. With respect to "prejudice, " the defendant claimed that he is prejudiced because his life sentence is now unconstitutional under Miller, such that he is entitled to resentencing, including credit for time served.

         ¶ 9 The circuit court denied the motion upon finding that the defendant failed to satisfy the "prejudice" prong of the cause-and-prejudice test. Specifically, the circuit court found that the defendant's mandatory life-without-parole sentence did not violate his due process rights because Miller only applies to defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes, whereas the defendant was 19 years old when he committed his offense. Accordingly, the circuit court denied the defendant's motion for leave to file a second successive postconviction petition. This appeal followed.

         ¶ 10 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 11 We note that we have jurisdiction to review this matter, as the defendant filed a timely notice of appeal following the denial of his motion. Ill. S.Ct. R. ...


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