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People v. Knowles

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

October 8, 2019

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
GILBERT KNOWLES, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 12th Judicial Circuit, Will County, Illinois, Circuit No. 07-CF-1926, Honorable Carmen Julia Goodman, Judge, Presiding.

          HOLDRIDGE JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Carter and Wright concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          HOLDRIDGE JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 The defendant, Gilbert Knowles, appeals the second-stage dismissal of his postconviction petition, arguing (1) his petition alleged sufficient facts for his ineffective assistance of counsel claims to advance to the third stage, (2) Judge David Carlson should not have recused himself, and (3) the Will County circuit court used flawed reasoning when dismissing the petition.

         ¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In 2010, the defendant was convicted of first degree murder (720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(1), (a)(2) (West 2006)) and sentenced to 52 years' imprisonment. The State's evidence at the bench trial established that Julie Miller, her two-year-old son, Devin, and her two daughters lived with the defendant in Joliet. The defendant was Julie's boyfriend. On September 17, 2007, the children had been with Devin's father during the day, but had been returned to Julie's care around 8 p.m. She did not notice that Devin had any injuries. She gave the children macaroni and cheese and put them to bed around 9:30 p.m. Shortly thereafter she received a phone call from the defendant. The defendant was with his brother, Steven Gretz, at a bar and asked Julie if she could take Steven to Morris. Julie agreed, the defendant returned home, and then Julie left to pick up Steven. Julie and Steven stayed at the bar for a while, and then Julie drove Steven back to her house to retrieve something from the defendant's car. She briefly went into the house and saw the defendant asleep on the couch. She then took Steven home and stayed at his house for a couple of hours. When she arrived home, she went straight to bed. The next morning, her daughter woke her around 8 a.m. and told her that she could not find Devin. Julie ran into Devin's room and found him wedged between the wall and his bed. She grabbed him and called 911. Devin was pronounced dead at the scene at 9:03 a.m. There were no signs of forced entry into the home.

         ¶ 4 Detective Linda Odom testified as an expert in the field of criminal investigation, specifically regarding child abuse injuries. She stated that she was a detective with the Joliet Police Department. She interviewed the defendant. He told Odom that he worked at Backyard Pools and had been there on September 17. He had a bad day at work as the truck he usually drove was not working, he had forgotten his lunch, had not slept well, and was recovering from bronchitis. He got off of work at 4 p.m. and went to a bar with Steven. He had approximately seven beers. At first he told Odom "that he was intoxicated to the point of getting sick because he had not had lunch." He later altered the statement and said that he was not intoxicated, but was "merely buzzed." Upon returning home, he went outside to have a beer and smoke. When he came back inside, Devin was crying and had blood on his nose and lip. The defendant cleaned Devin up, comforted him, and then Devin went back to bed. The defendant spoke to Julie on the phone shortly thereafter, but did not tell her about Devin's injury. He then went to sleep on the couch. He awoke, put on the jeans and T-shirt that he had worn the night before, and went to work at 6:30 a.m., but had to come back because he forgot his keys. He was at work when Julie called him about Devin. Later, the defendant admitted that he had also used cocaine that night. The defendant asked Odom

"if Devin was found on the floor or if he was found lodged by the bed-between the bed and the wall because he had gotten stuck there before and he was afraid that maybe he had gotten his head stuck, his ears under the lip of the bed and that that might have caused his death."

         Odom showed the defendant the previous photographs of injuries to Devin, and the defendant said that Devin had fallen down the stairs or out of the crib in each of the photographs. The defendant said that Devin was always getting bruised and injured. He told Odom that he had told Julie "that DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] was going to investigate her because [Devin] looked like he had been hit with a bat and that she could lose her children." When speaking with Odom, the defendant referred to Devin as "that baby boy or that baby." Odom viewed the photographs of injuries to Devin and stated that the injuries were more suggestive of intentional injuries due to their location. The officers took the jeans and white T-shirt the defendant had been wearing.

         ¶ 5 Jose Campos testified that he was a police officer for the Wilmington Police Department. On September 18, 2007, he assisted the Joliet Police Department in obtaining information on a person who was employed at Backyard Pools. He entered the wooded area on the side of the property as directed by Joliet detectives. He was to look "for some possible clothing that was involved in an earlier crime." He found a white T-shirt and a pair of Eddie Bauer jeans "wadded up" in a pile approximately 100 feet into the wooded area. He called the Joliet police and remained at the location until the Joliet police took custody of the clothing.

         ¶ 6 Three white T-shirts were taken into evidence, one the defendant was wearing when he was taken in for the interview, one discovered in the woods by the defendant's work, and one found in the bottom of the garbage can at Julie's house. The one found in the woods was tested in the crime lab. Kelly Krajnik testified that she is a forensic scientist for the Illinois State Police Joliet Forensic Science Laboratory. She tested stains on a white T-shirt and did not find any blood. However, Lyle Boicken, a forensic scientist for the Illinois State Police crime lab testified as an expert in forensic sciences, specifically biology and DNA. He retested the stains for blood, and the test indicated blood was present. David Turngren testified as an expert in forensic science and DNA. He conducted DNA analysis on the T-shirt and compared it to the DNA profiles from Julie, Devin, and the defendant. The DNA on the T-shirt matched the defendant. Another male DNA profile on the T-shirt was identified and Devin could not be excluded.

         ¶ 7 Devin's father, Bryan Owens, testified that he was also the defendant's best friend. He testified that Devin was not accident prone. Prior to Devin moving in with Julie and the defendant, Bryan did not notice any injuries on Devin. However, after they moved in, he noticed that Devin had different bruises or injuries about every week. The injuries stopped when the defendant moved out of the house for a couple of weeks, but resumed and became more severe when he moved back in. Bryan took photographs of the injuries, and they were presented in court. When Bryan asked Julie about the injuries, she relayed whatever explanation the defendant had told her. He started taking the photographs because he thought that if Devin was falling often and receiving injuries, Julie and the defendant must not be watching him well. He planned on presenting the photographs during his custody case for the children. After speaking with his divorce lawyer, he decided not to contact DCFS. No injuries occurred while Devin was with Bryan. Bryan always checked Devin for injuries when he was with him, but did not notice any on that day. Mark Owens, Devin's grandfather, had seen him earlier in the day on September 17, 2007, and noted that Devin had no injuries and was playing like normal. Two other witnesses testified that on previous occasions Devin had been left in the defendant's care while they left the house with Julie. On each occasion they arrived back at the house and found that Devin had sustained injuries.

         ¶ 8 Dr. John Scott Denton testified that he was a forensic pathologist and was qualified as an expert in forensic pathology with a concentration in child injuries. Dr. Bryan Mitchell performed the autopsy. Denton was covering Mitchell's prior cases after Mitchell's death and had reviewed his autopsy report. He stated that Mitchell documented 51 separate and external injuries to Devin, 30 to 35 of the injuries were to Devin's head and face. Mitchell had found that the injuries were caused by multiple instances of blunt force trauma. Denton stated that the injuries were inconsistent with an accidental fall in the bathroom. Denton stated that the injuries were likely fatal in combination, but that the most severe injuries were skull fractures and bruising on his forehead. Had these injuries occurred 12 to 24 hours before Devin's death, they would have been symptomatic. Denton agreed with Mitchell's findings and conclusions and found that Devin "died from cranial cerebral injuries due to blunt trauma to the head." He also stated that Devin likely sustained child abuse prior to this as well based on older injuries. The State showed Denton photographs of Devin's previous injuries that had been deemed accidental falls. Denton stated that he did not believe the injuries were consistent with falling and instead were inflicted injuries. After opening Devin's stomach, Mitchell noted that the pasta that he had eaten was still intact. Because of this, Denton opined that Devin died within a maximum of three hours after he ate the pasta.

         ¶ 9 Dr. John Plunkett testified for the defense as an expert in forensic pathology and the evaluation of infant injuries. He was a coroner for several Minnesota counties. He reviewed the autopsy report performed by Mitchell and the police report. Plunkett testified that Mitchell could have provided more information by examining all of the bruises on Devin to a higher degree to determine whether some of the injuries were older. Plunkett believed that some of the bruises looked older from the photographs, but could not say without looking at them microscopically. Plunkett stated that he would have done more of a microscopic examination than Mitchell. Mitchell concluded that Devin's "death was the result of cranial cerebral injuries due to multiple blunt force trauma to the head." Plunkett stated that he believed that was "a reasonable conclusion" and "probably" would have been his conclusion as well. However, Plunkett stated that he could not make such a conclusion to be a "reasonable certainty." He stated,

"If Devin had simply been found dead for example on the floor or on the bed and there was no evidence that he had been moved, then it would have been my conclusion to a reasonable medical certainty that blunt head trauma caused his death.
However, because of the position his body was found as described in the police investigative reports, wedged upside down between the bed frame and the wall, it's at least possible that Devin, in fact, died as a result of what's called positional *** asphyxia, in other words, being unable to breathe because of the position of his body."

         Plunkett stated that none of Devin's injuries in and of themselves would have necessarily been fatal. While Plunkett agreed that Devin's injuries were extensive, he also stated that the position in which the body was found also would have made the injuries to his head and neck look worse because of the settling of the blood. Plunkett also stated that if Devin had fallen and hit his head in the bathroom, it could have killed him, though it was unusual for such to occur. Plunkett stated that, if Devin's death was caused by blunt force trauma instead of asphyxiation, the injuries Devin sustained likely happened within 24 to 48 hours of his death, based on the police reports, Plunkett stated he likely sustained the injuries within 12 hours of his death. On cross-examination, Plunkett stated that "[t]o a reasonable medical certainty, Devin's death is a homicide." In his notes, Plunkett had written, "someone beat the shit out of Devin." However, Plunkett stated that, though he thought it was clear that Devin had been beaten, he could not "conclude *** with a reasonable degree of scientific and medical certainty that the beating was the actual cause of death."

         ¶ 10 Steven testified that the defendant was his half-brother. On the night in question, Julie came to the bar after the defendant went home. They stayed at the bar until around 1 a.m. Before she drove him home to Morris, they stopped at Julie's house to get Steven's marijuana out of the defendant's car. After taking Steven home, Julie stayed for 15 to 20 minutes and then went home. Once Julie returned home, she called Steven, which he thought was unusual because she had never called to tell him she had returned home when she gave him rides on previous occasions.

         ¶ 11 The defendant testified that he started seeing Julie in 2006 and noticed that Devin had injuries. At that point, the defendant was never alone with Devin and was not living in the house, but Bryan was. The defendant moved in with Julie in December 2006 and Bryan moved out in January 2007. The defendant stated that he and Devin were like father and son. He observed Devin hurt himself approximately three times during the summer of 2007, but the injuries were not severe. The defendant testified that the photographs of the injuries that the State had introduced did not happen in his care. He saw injuries to Devin, but was not present for any of them. The defendant said that Julie would spank and cuss at Devin when disciplining him. He never told the police about Julie disciplining Devin or the injuries Devin had sustained. He told the police that Julie was a great, patient mother and never hit or touched the children. The jeans found by his work were not his because he had never owned a pair of Eddie Bauer jeans.

         ¶ 12 The court found the defendant guilty. In doing so, the court stated, "The defense believes sufficient evidence exists to suggest an accidental death, specifically a fractured skull from an accidental fall in the bathtub or positional asphyxia when Dev[i]n was accidentally wedged upside down between the wall and his bed or a combination of those events." He was sentenced to 52 years' imprisonment. On appeal, the defendant argued that he was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the court abused its discretion in allowing the State to present evidence of prior physical abuse, and the defendant's sentence was excessive. People v. Knowles, 2012 IL App (3d) 110015-U. We affirmed. Id. ¶ 39.

         ¶ 13 On January 16, 2013, the defendant filed a pro se postconviction petition. The defendant contended that his constitutional rights were violated, stating,

"Officer Campos testified that after speaking to the Joliet detectives, he was asked to go out to the defendant's workplace, Backyard Pools and look for some clothing possibly used in a crime. And then they gave Officer Campos a description of the clothing-T-shirt and blue jeans. ***
Neither the Joliet Police Department Detectives, or the prosecution disclosed who the person was that gave them this description of the clothing and the location where to find them. No person in the police report gave a description of the clothes used in the crime and the location where to find them. Julie Miller and defendant's brother was the last persons to see defendant, neither one of them gave the police a description of the clothes defendant had on that night. And defendant testified the next morning he put back on the same clothes he had on the night that Devin was killed. There's no way the Joliet Police Department Detectives could know the description of the clothes without someone having supplied it-there's also no way they would know the location where to look for the clothes without someone telling them. The information of who told them was withheld from the defense." The defendant further alleged that appellate counsel had failed to raise this issue. The defendant's petition was not ruled on within 90 days, and the petition was advanced to the second stage.

         ¶ 14 In its amended postconviction petition, defense counsel contended that trial counsel was ineffective for (1) failing to stipulate to the cause of death, (2) calling an expert, Plunkett, that affirmatively proved the cause of death, (3) failing "to properly investigate the source of a tip leading the police to search the woods behind [the defendant's] place of work that contained incriminating evidence," and (4) failing to "subpoena or utilize the cellular phone records concerning telephone calls on the night of Devin's death between [Julie] and [Steven], which could substantiate [the defendant's] timeline of events thereby undermining her claims of innocence" and "cellular tower records evidencing [Julie's] whereabouts and thereby undermining her claims of innocence." The petition also alleged appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise these issues. The State filed a motion to dismiss.

         ¶ 15 The matter came before Judge David Carlson to hear the State's motion to dismiss on ...


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