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Trotter v. Pfister

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

November 4, 2019

RANDY PFISTER, Warden, Stateville Correctional Center, [1] Respondent.



         Petitioner Clarence Charles Trotter brings this action for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Dkt. 1.) Most of Trotter's claims were previously dismissed on timeliness grounds, with the exception of a single claim which was stayed pending exhaustion of state remedies. (Dkt. 29, 51.) Upon conclusion of the state proceedings, the stay was lifted and briefing resumed. (Dkt. 94.) For the reasons stated below, the Court now denies habeas relief, and declines to issue a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 1994, a Cook County judge convicted Clarence Trotter of murder, aggravated kidnapping, and residential burglary following a bench trial. (Dkt. 100-8 at 4, People v. Trotter, No. 1-10-2081 (Ill.App.Ct. Oct. 24, 2012.) As detailed in previous opinions in this matter, Trotter appealed his conviction and sought post-conviction relief in the state courts. (See Dkt. 29, Mem. Opinion & Order; dkt. 51, Mem. Opinion & Order.) He then petitioned this Court for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Dkt. 1, Habeas Pet.) Trotter later amended his petition by filing a “Supplemental Habeas Corpus Issue, ” in which he added a new claim under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963). (Dkt. 17, Supp. Issue.) Specifically, Trotter alleged that he had recently discovered that prosecutors had withheld information about the extent of prosecution witness Charles Coker's criminal history and the fact that certain criminal charges had been pending against Coker at the time he testified. (Id.) He supported his claim with two certified statements of conviction he said showed Coker's undisclosed additional convictions under aliases. (Id. at 5-12.) Trotter's initial habeas claims were subsequently dismissed on timeliness grounds (dkt. 29, Mem. Op. & Order), with the exception of his supplemental Brady claim which was later stayed so Trotter could return to state court to exhaust. (Dkt. 51, Mem. Op. & Order.)

         Thereafter, Trotter filed a pro se motion for leave to file a successive postconviction petition in the Circuit Court of Cook County, arguing that he had been denied a fair trial because evidence of Coker's criminal history had been concealed from the defense and because the prosecutor knowingly allowed Coker to commit perjury by understating his criminal history. (Dkt. 100-5 at 1-21, Mot. to File.) According to Trotter, his motion was proper because he could not have discovered its factual predicate sooner and based on his claim of actual innocence. (Id.) He later supplemented his motion with an additional submission in which he argued that an investigator had interviewed Coker and learned that Coker had in fact received favorable treatment from prosecutors in exchange for his testimony against Trotter. (Dkt. 100-5 at 22-25, Supp. Postconviction Issue.) Attached to his filing was an undated memorandum from the investigator documenting his purported conversation with Coker. (Id. at 24-25.)

         On March 20, 2010, the Circuit Court of Cook County denied Trotter's motion, finding that his evidence was insufficient to warrant a new trial and not of such character to change the result on retrial, and that he had failed to establish that he could not have discovered the materials earlier with the exercise of due diligence, or that the issue so infected the trial that his resulting conviction and sentence violated due process. (Dkt. 100-5 at 26-33, People v. Trotter, 86 CR 10969 (Cir. Ct. Cook County Mar. 20, 2010).) On June 16, 2010, the court denied Trotter's motion for reconsideration. (Dkt. 100-5 at 34-38, People v. Trotter, 86 CR 10969 (Cir. Ct. Cook County June 16, 2010).) Trotter appealed the decision, arguing that the failure to disclose that Coker had received favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony against Trotter violated his right to due process, and thus arguably met the cause and prejudice test. (Dkt. 100-6, Pet'r Brief and Arg.) The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed (dkt. 100-8 at 1-10, People v. Trotter, No. 1-10-2081 (Ill.App.Ct. Oct. 24, 2012)), and the Illinois Supreme Court denied Trotter's petition for leave to appeal. (Dkt. 100-9, People v. Trotter, No. 115174 (Ill. Mar. 26, 2014).)

         Upon the conclusion of the state court proceedings, the Court lifted the stay and set a briefing schedule on Trotter's Brady claim. (Dkt. 94, Order.) Briefing resumed, and Trotter's subsequent motion to reconsider the dismissal of his other claims was denied. (Dkt. 113, Order.) The Brady claim is now ripe for resolution.


         According to Trotter, habeas relief is proper because prosecutors withheld evidence of Coker's alias convictions and allowed Coker to falsely testify that he had no pending criminal charges and no other convictions beyond those which he disclosed. (Dkt. 17, Supp. Issue at 1-2.) Respondent argues in opposition that Trotter's claim is time-barred and procedurally defaulted, and that, in any event, it fails on the merits. (Dkt. 99, Resp. at 12-22.) The Court declines to consider the issue of timeliness because even if Trotter's Brady claim is timely presented, it fails both by procedural default as well as on the merits.

         A. Standards of Decision

         A writ of habeas corpus cannot be issued unless the petitioner demonstrates that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a federal court may only grant habeas relief if the state court's decision on the merits “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” or the state court decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and (2). The standard under Section 2254(d) is “difficult to meet, ” and “highly deferential.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (quotations omitted); accord Snow v. Pfister, 880 F.3d 857, 864 (7th Cir.), cert. denied sub nom. Snow v. Nicholson, 138 S.Ct. 2637 (2018) (internal quotations omitted).

         Before seeking a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, a state prisoner must first give the state courts a full and fair opportunity to resolve any federal constitutional claims. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999); Snow, 880 F.3d at 864. The exhaustion requirement not only requires that the broad claim be raised but also the legal arguments and operative facts supporting it. McNary v. Lemke, 708 F.3d 905, 919 (7th Cir. 2013). “Exhaustion serves an interest in federal-state comity by giving state courts the first opportunity to address and correct potential violations of a prisoner's federal rights.” Perruquet v. Briley, 390 F.3d 505, 513 (7th Cir. 2004). Accordingly, a federal court will not hear a state prisoner's habeas claim unless the prisoner has first exhausted his state remedies by presenting the claim to the state courts for one full round of review. O'Sullivan, 526 U.S. at 845; Snow, 880 F.3d at 864. In Illinois, a prisoner must include his claims in a petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court in order to fulfill his exhaustion requirement. Snow, 880 F.3d at 864.

         Relatedly, a federal court may not reach the merits of “claims that the state court denied based on an adequate and independent state procedural rule.” Crutchfield v. Dennison, 910 F.3d 968, 973 (7th Cir. 2018) (quoting Davila v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 2058, 2064 (2017)). Here too, where the state court declines to address a petitioner's habeas claim because the petitioner did not meet state procedural requirements, “principles of comity and federalism dictate against upending the state-court conviction, and instead, finding that the petitioner's claim is procedurally defaulted.” Thomas v. Williams, 822 F.3d 378, 384 (7th Cir. 2016).

         In order for a federal court to hear a procedurally defaulted claim, the petitioner must establish either: “(1) ‘cause for the default and actual prejudice' or (2) ‘that the failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice.'” Thomas, 822 F.3d at 386 (quoting Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991)); accord Davila, 137 S.Ct. at 2064-65. “‘Cause' is an objective factor external to the defense that impeded the presentation of the claim to the state courts.” Crutchfield, 910 F.3d at 973. “A factor is ‘external to the defense' only if it ‘cannot fairly be attributed to' the prisoner.” Id. (quoting Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750). A fundamental miscarriage of justice may be demonstrated where the petitioner shows ‚Äúthat a constitutional violation has probably resulted in the ...

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