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Towers v. Lawrence

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

September 3, 2019

FRANK LAWRENCE, Acting Warden, Menard Correctional Center, Respondent.



         Petitioner Lucrecious Towers 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. Towers advances several grounds for habeas relief: actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence; ineffective assistance of trial counsel; and improper rulings by the trial court regarding evidence of his prior criminal convictions. Frank Lawrence, Acting Warden of Menard Correctional Center (“Respondent”), [1] argues that Petitioner's claims are meritless, non-cognizable, or procedurally defaulted.

         For the reasons set forth herein, the Court denies the petition in part and reserves ruling as to Petitioner's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim until an evidentiary hearing can be held. The Court will recruit counsel to represent Petitioner for the limited purpose of the evidentiary hearing as to Petitioner's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. Petitioner's counsel is granted leave to subpoena trial counsel for records and to conduct any necessary depositions. A status hearing is scheduled for November 5, 2019 at 9:00 a.m. to set a discovery schedule and a date for the evidentiary hearing.

         Factual Background

         A jury convicted Towers of the first-degree murder of John Falls. See People v. Towers, No. 1-14-1474, 2016 WL 7434788, at *4 (Ill.App.Ct. Dec. 23, 2016). The facts underlying the conviction are as follows.[2]

         In the early morning of January 14, 2006, Falls was driving a Jeep Trailblazer near Emerald Street and 56th Street in Chicago, Illinois. Id. at *1. Three others were also in the car: Christopher Doss, James Harper, and April McFulson. Id.

         Falls drove north on Emerald Street and pulled up behind a gray Ford Focus that was stopped in the street, blocking the northbound lane. Id. The Focus was parked next to a white Pontiac Bonneville. Id. Falls honked his horn, drove around the Focus, and proceeded north on Emerald Street. Id. He then pulled into an alley nearby, exited his vehicle, and confronted the driver of the Focus. A physical altercation ensued. Id.

         At this point, the driver of the Bonneville pulled up to the alley and got out of his car. Id. Doss and Harper then also exited the Trailblazer; McFulson remained in the SUV.

         Doss began fighting with the Bonneville driver, while Harper joined Falls in fighting the Focus driver. Id. Harper hit the Focus driver with an empty vodka bottle, causing him to fall to the ground, at which point the Bonneville driver fled. Id. Harper then got into the Focus and crashed it into a tree. Id. Falls, Harper, and Doss got back into the Trailblazer and drove away. Id.

         Meanwhile, the Bonneville driver returned to his car and began pursuing the Trailblazer, ultimately rear-ending the SUV and causing it to collide with a parked vehicle. Id. at *2. The Bonneville driver then sped away. Id.

         Falls drove the damaged Trailblazer to 69th Street and Wentworth Avenue and parked it in front of Harper's house. Id. The group got into Harper's truck, drove to a police station to file a report, then proceeded to a party where they stayed until 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning. Id.

         After the party, McFulson and Falls went to Falls's sister's house, where they slept until noon. Id. Falls then borrowed his sister's white Volkswagen Touareg, and he and McFulson drove to Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen (“Popeye's”), a fast-food restaurant located at 75th Street and Lafayette Avenue. Id.

         As they waited in the drive-through lane of the Popeye's, a man walked up to the driver's side of the Touareg and fired a gun six or seven times through the car's window. Id. The shooter pulled a hood over his face and ran around the corner of the restaurant. Id. McFulson eventually ran into the restaurant and told someone to call the police. Id. Falls died after suffering five gunshot wounds to his left side. Id. at *3.

         Detectives Paul Spagnola and Rick Harrison were assigned to investigate the shooting. Id. at *2. They interviewed witnesses who described the shooter as a black male, between 26 and 27 years old, approximately 5'8” tall, weighing approximately 160 pounds, and wearing a dark leather jacket, dark clothes, and a hooded sweater, with the hood down. Id. McFulson stated that she saw the man walk up to the Touareg's window before lowering her head to avoid falling glass from the shooting. Another witness, Edwina Ross, said that she had been sitting in a car in front of the Touareg in the drive-through lane and saw the entire scene unfold. Id.

         Detectives Spagnola and Harrison also went to 5639 South Emerald Street to look at a dark blue 1992 Chevrolet Lumina, which matched the description of a car that witnesses described as the getaway car for the murder. The car was registered to a Marco McNeal. Id. at *2.

         On January 16, 2006, Detective Spagnola composed a black-and-white photo array to show to Doss, Harper, and McFulson. The array included photographs of McNeal and another individual, Arian Bonds. But the array did not include a picture of Towers, presumably because Towers was not a suspect at that time. Id. at *3.

         After reviewing the photo array, Doss said that McNeal looked like the Focus driver from the altercation and that Bonds resembled the Bonneville driver. Id. Harper also identified McNeal as the Focus driver. Id. McFulson was unable to make any identifications from the array. Id.

         From this, Detective Spagnola turned his attention to McNeal and Bonds. He was unable to locate McNeal, but was able to interview Arian Bonds and his brother Carlos Bonds. Id. at *3. Based upon these interviews, Detective Spagnola then shifted the focus of his investigation to Towers. Id.

         Detective Spagnola created a second photo array that included color photographs of Towers and a person named Terrence Cobb and showed it to Doss, Harper, and McFulson. Id. This time, Doss and Harper identified Cobb as the driver of the Focus, and Towers as the driver of the white Bonneville. Id. Furthermore, McFulson identified Towers as the person whom she saw walk in front of the Touareg immediately before the shooting started. Id. Ross also identified Towers as the shooter. Id.

         Towers was arrested in March 2006 and placed in a lineup. Id. Doss, Harper, McFulson, and Ross each identified Towers in the lineup consistent with their identifications from the second photo array. Id.

         At Tower's trial, Doss, Harper, McFulson, Ross, and Detective Spagnola each testified to the facts described above. Id. at *1-3. Doss and Harper identified Towers as the Bonneville driver with whom they had fought, id. at *1, and McFulson identified Towers as the person whom she saw walk in front of the Touareg before she heard the gunshots and lowered her head. Id. at *2. Ross also identified Towers as the person who fired multiple shots at the Touareg. Id.

         Additionally, at the trial, Harper testified that, prior to the altercation, the four were driving in the area because Falls was looking for his ex-girlfriend, Ebony Ester, who was staying at a friend's house. Id. at *2.

         After the prosecution rested, the defense called Carlos Bonds, who testified that, in January 2006, he had been living with his brother, Arian Bonds, at 5638 South Emerald Street. Id. at *3. He explained that both Arian and Towers drove white Bonnevilles, and both men wore their hair in braids. Id. He also testified that Arian was dating Ebony Ester at the time of the incident. Id. When asked on cross-examination whether he had told the police on January 14, 2006, and the state's attorney on March 14, 2006, that he had seen Towers driving a dark-colored Lumina, Carlos stated that he had not. Id.

         Towers testified on his own behalf. Id. He acknowledged that, in January 2006, he drove a white Bonneville and wore his hair in braids. Id. He also stated that he lived at 5630 South Emerald Street for about a month, and that he was frequently in the area. Id. But he denied any involvement in the traffic altercation or shooting of January 14, 2006. Id. He testified that he knew Arian Bonds and that Arian also drove a white Bonneville. Id.

         Prior to the trial, Towers had moved in limine to exclude evidence of his felony convictions in 1998 and 2000 for controlled-substances offenses. See State Court Record, Ex. D, People v. Towers, No. 1-08-1875, slip op. at 2-3 (Ill.App.Ct. Mar. 9, 2010), ECF No. 17. The trial court reserved ruling on this testimony until after Towers testified. Id.

         During his cross-examination, Towers testified without objection that he had previously used the names “Demetrius Hicks” and “Demetrius Coleman.” Id. at 9. Then, in response to the prosecutor's questions and over defense counsel's objection, Towers admitted that he had given those names to police to obscure his identity and avoid going to jail. Id. After hearing this testimony, the trial court ruled that evidence of Towers's prior convictions would be admissible, noting that Towers had already admitted to “prior interaction with the law enforcement, ” and thus “the probative value [of his prior convictions] outweigh[ed] the prejudicial effect.” Id. at 9-10. The court ruled, however, that the prosecution would be limited to introducing only the mere fact that Towers had been previously convicted of felonies. Id. at 10. Defense counsel responded that this approach was “fine.” Id. On rebuttal, the prosecution presented three certified statements reflecting Towers's prior convictions. Id. at 10-11.

         The prosecution also used its rebuttal to impeach Carlos Bonds's testimony. Assistant State's Attorney Mary Anna Planey testified that, in March 2006, she had interviewed Carlos Bonds, who had told her that he had seen Towers driving a dark-colored Lumina on January 14, 2006. See People v. Towers, 2016 WL 7434788, at *4.

         During closing arguments, defense counsel argued that Arian Bonds, not Towers, had committed the crime. Id. He noted that Arian Bonds lived near 56th and Emerald Streets, drove a white Bonneville, and wore his hair in braids, just like Towers. Id. Counsel also pointed out that Arian Bonds was dating Falls's ex-girlfriend who, according to Harper, Falls had been trying to catch with her new boyfriend (which we now know was Bonds) in the early morning hours of January 14, 2006. Id. Counsel attacked the prosecution's witnesses' credibility, highlighted discrepancies in their testimony, and argued that McFulson's and Ross's identifications were unreliable. Id.

         The jury convicted Towers of first-degree murder, and the trial court sentenced him to a 100-year term of imprisonment. Id.

         Direct Appeal

         On direct appeal, Towers contended that the trial court improperly admitted evidence of his prior convictions and interactions with police. See State Court Record, Ex. A, Pet'r's Opening Br., People v. Towers, No. 1-08-1875, at 15-24 (Ill.App.Ct. 2010). In particular, Towers argued that the trial court erred by: (1) reserving ruling on his pretrial motion to exclude evidence of his prior convictions until after he testified; (2) permitting the prosecution to cross-examine him about his previous encounters with police; (3) relying on his testimony from that cross-examination to find his prior convictions admissible; and (4) requiring the prosecution to use ...

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