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Meza v. Kennedy

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

June 6, 2019

ROBERT MEZA, Petitioner,
TERI KENNEDY, Warden, Pontiac Correctional Center, Respondent.


          John Z. Lee, United States District Judge

         Robert Meza has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), challenging his conviction for first-degree murder. Meza alleges that a non-testifying codefendant's statement was improperly introduced at trial in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers, and that the jury may have been infected with anti-gang bias, in violation of his right to a fair and impartial jury. Meza also contends that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to prevent both errors. Teri Kennedy, Warden of Pontiac Correctional Center (“Respondent”), [1] argues that Meza's claims are either procedurally defaulted or meritless. For the following reasons, the petition [1] is denied.

         Factual Background[2]

         Meza's conviction arises out of the murder of Lorenzo Salazar-Cortez on September 15, 2007. See Resp't Ex. C, Pet'r Direct Appeal Br. at 2, ECF No. 16-3. Salazar-Cortez was shot four times through a basement window of an apartment building in Addison, Illinois. See Id. Within hours of the shooting, graffiti appeared nearby denigrating the Latin Kings street gang, suggesting that members of a rival gang, the Imperial Gangsters, had been responsible for the shooting. See id.; Resp't Ex. A at 2. At the time, the Imperial Gangsters were attempting to “move into” the area surrounding the apartment building, which was part of Latin Kings territory. Resp't Ex. A at 2. Salazar-Cortez did not belong to a gang and appeared to have been an innocent victim. Id.

         Several days after the shooting, police met with a paid informant, Candido Rosales, who said he had spoken with an Imperial Gangster named Antonio Aguilar. Id. Aguilar had told Rosales that the Imperial Gangsters were responsible for the shooting, and that a gang member named “Lazy” had drawn the graffiti afterward. Id. “Lazy” was Meza's street name. Id.

         Rosales then wore a wire and met with Aguilar on several occasions. Id. at 3. During one conversation, Aguilar showed Rosales a 9-millimeter gun. Id. In a subsequent recorded conversation, Aguilar said that Lazy and another individual, Carlos “Benzino” Ruiz, were “stashing, ” or hiding, because they were the “main [N***as]” involved in the shooting. Id. Aguilar stated that Benzino was the shooter, and that Lazy's car had been used. Id. Aguilar further explained that they had intended to shoot one of two twin brothers-both Latin Kings-who lived in the apartment building. Id. at 2-3.

         Aguilar was arrested and interrogated. Id. at 3. He initially denied knowing anything, but later admitted that the Imperial Gangsters were responsible for the shooting. Id. He said that Lazy was claiming responsibility for the shooting, and that Lazy had dropped him off the night of the shooting saying he had a “few things to take care of.” Id. On the basis of this information, police arrested Meza. Id.

         At the police station, Meza gave a videotaped statement. Id.; see Resp't Ex. B at 3. Near the beginning of the statement, the detectives told Meza that Aguilar had implicated him in the offense. Resp't Ex. A at 4. Meza asked to hear the statement, so the detectives played him a portion of Aguilar's recorded interrogation. Id. The audio from that portion of Aguilar's interrogation was captured in the video recording of Meza's statement. Id.

         Meza went on to give a confession, which was recorded. He explained that on the night of the shooting, he drove Aguilar into Latin Kings territory, knowing Aguilar had a gun. Resp't Ex. B at 3. He and Aguilar tried to get into an apartment building, but the door was locked. Id. He followed Aguilar, who shot toward a group of people near a window. Id. Aguilar then ran away, and Meza drove him away from the scene. Id. Meza later returned to the area and wrote the anti-Latin Kings graffiti, because he was a better “tagger” than Aguilar. Id. Aguilar kept the gun. Id.

         Meza was charged with first-degree murder on an “accountability” theory. Resp't Ex. B at 2. Prior to trial, Meza moved to quash his arrest based on a lack of probable cause and to suppress his recorded confession as a product of the illegal arrest. Resp't Ex. A at 2. The trial court denied the motion. See Id. at 4.

         During voir dire, defense counsel asked prospective jurors several questions to explore potential biases. Resp't Ex. B at 2. He asked one prospective juror, “Just because a person might be in a gang, which is not a healthy organization, doesn't mean that they perhaps committed this particular murder or this particular burglary or this particular robbery; wouldn't that be fair?” Id. That juror expressed an ability to be fair to both sides, and ended up sitting on the jury. Id. Another prospective juror stated that he had friends who were police officers and often discussed “gang-related stuff” with them. Id. Defense counsel did not move to strike this juror, who also ended up on the jury. Id. Meza's attorney did not ask gang-related questions to any other members of the venire who were selected for the jury. See Id. at 4.

         At trial, the videotape of Meza's statement was played for the jury, including the portion in which Meza listened to Aguilar's recorded interview. Resp't Ex. A at 4. As described by the Illinois Appellate Court, “[o]n the video, although Aguilar's statements are barely audible, the detective's statements in response clearly imply that Aguilar implicated [Meza] as the shooter.” Id. The jury also heard evidence about the rivalry between the Imperial Gangsters and the Latin Kings, as well as about the graffiti that appeared after the shooting. Resp't Ex. B at 2-3.

         The jury found Meza guilty, and the trial court sentenced him to 45 years of imprisonment. Id.

         Direct Appeal

         In his direct appeal, Meza argued through counsel that there was no probable cause for his arrest and that the introduction of Aguilar's statement through the video of Meza violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. See Resp't Ex. A at 4, 6. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed, first concluding that there was probable cause for Meza's arrest. Id. at 5. As to the Confrontation issue, the court found: “Initially, we note that [Meza] did not object in the trial court to the playing of Aguilar's statement. Thus, the question is whether the plain-error rule applies, or whether defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel.” Id. at 6. The court concluded that there was no plain error or ineffective assistance because “it [was] virtually inconceivable that the jury would ignore defendant's own admissions and convict him on the basis of Aguilar's implication.” Id. at 6-7. Because the focus of the video was Meza's own admissions and Aguilar's statements were not a central issue, the Illinois Appellate Court determined that it was unlikely that Aguilar's taped statements affected the outcome of the case. Id. at 7-8.

         Meza filed a petition for leave to appeal (“PLA”) in the Illinois Supreme Court, again challenging the introduction of Aguilar's statements at trial. See Resp't Ex. F, Pet'r Direct Appeal PLA at 2, ECF No. 16-6. The Illinois Supreme Court denied the PLA on January 25, 2012. Resp't Ex. G, People v. Meza, No. 113195 (Ill. Jan. 25, 2012), ECF No. 16-7.

         Postconviction Proceedings

         Meza filed a pro se postconviction petition in June 2012. See Resp't Ex. H, Pet'r Postconviction Appeal Br. at 4, ECF No. 16-8. The DuPage County Public Defender filed an amended petition on his behalf, arguing that trial counsel was ineffective for not adequately examining prospective jurors about anti-gang bias and that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to preserve this issue on appeal. Id. The trial court dismissed the petition, finding that, although trial counsel's performance was in fact deficient, Meza had failed to demonstrate prejudice. Id.

         On appeal, postconviction appellate counsel raised the same issues. Id. at 1. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed, agreeing with the trial court that Meza had not been prejudiced by counsel's ineffective performance due to the ...

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