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People v. Thornton

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fifth Division

January 10, 2020

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
ALTAI THORNTON, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 95 CR 24520 Honorable Brian Flaherty, Judge, presiding.

          PRESIDING JUSTICE HOFFMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Rochford and Delort concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          HOFFMAN PRESIDING JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 The defendant, Altai Thornton, appeals from an order of the circuit court of Cook Country, dismissing his pro se petition for relief pursuant to the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (Act) (725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq. (West 2016)). On appeal, he raises the following two arguments: (1) he stated an arguable claim that his 70-year sentence, for a crime he committed as a juvenile, is an unconstitutional de facto life sentence; and (2) we should remand his cause because the circuit court failed to properly admonish him pursuant to People v. Shellstrom, 216 Ill.2d 45 (2005), before recharacterizing his petition. For the reasons that follow, we vacate the defendant's sentence and remand the matter for a new sentencing hearing.

         ¶ 2 On March 4, 1999, the defendant entered an open guilty plea to four counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated kidnapping, stemming from the killing of Tommy Glass. In exchange for the defendant's guilty plea, the state agreed to cap its sentencing recommendation at 60 years' imprisonment. Before accepting the defendant's guilty plea, the circuit court admonished him pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 402 (eff. July 1, 1997), informing him that "the possible sentences on this case for first degree murder is 20 to 60 years *** [and] [w]ith a showing of cruel and heinous conduct *** an extended term sentence would be from 60 to 100 years, or in [the defendant's] case natural life." The defendant responded that he understood. In response to further questioning by the circuit court, the defendant also acknowledged that he understood he would give up his right to a jury trial, and that his plea was made freely and voluntarily.

         ¶ 3 The factual basis for the plea established the following. On December 27, 1994, the defendant, who was 17 years old at the time, and four co-defendants, abducted Glass, a member of a rival gang. After binding Glass's arms and legs, the defendant, along with his co-defendants, kicked and beat Glass, struck him over the head with a paint can, pushed his face onto lit stovetop burners, pushed him down a hill toward a canal, weighed down his clothing with rocks, and then held him underwater until he drowned.

         ¶ 4 At the sentencing hearing, the State presented evidence in aggravation of the defendant's involvement in a subsequent shooting. The State also presented a victim impact statement from Glass's sister. In mitigation, the defendant presented testimony from his mother and sister. In allocution, the defendant apologized, accepted responsibility for his actions, and asked for mercy.

         ¶ 5 The circuit court found the defendant's actions were cruel and heinous. In announcing its decision, the circuit court stated that the defendant was "starting down the wrong path at an early, early age." The circuit court then merged the aggravated kidnapping count into the first-degree murder count based on felony kidnapping and sentenced the defendant to four concurrent extended terms of 70 years' imprisonment in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).

         ¶ 6 On direct appeal, we reduced the defendant's sentence to concurrent terms of 60 years' imprisonment. People v. Thornton, No. 1-99-1045 (unpublished order of November 2, 2000). On May 30, 2002, our supreme court directed us to vacate our order and reconsider our judgment in light of its decision in People v. Jackson, 199 Ill.2d 286 (2002). People v. Thornton, 199 Ill.2d 575 (2002).

         ¶ 7 On remand to this court, the defendant argued that the circuit court erred by entering convictions and imposing sentences on four counts of first-degree murder when there was only one victim and that his 70-year sentence violated Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000). We vacated 3 of the 4 counts of first-degree murder, affirmed the remaining count of first-degree murder, and affirmed the defendant's 70-year sentence. People v. Thornton, 1-99-1045 (unpublished order of July 25, 2002).

         ¶ 8 On January 19, 2016, the defendant filed a pro se "Petition to Vacate Judgment under Section 2-1401(f)." In the petition, the defendant alleged the following: (1) his indictment was void for failing to allege brutal and heinous conduct; (2) his 70-year extended-term sentence violated Apprendi; (3) the extended-term sentencing statue, along with several others, were unconstitutional because they did not require the State to charge brutal and heinous conduct; (4) the concurrent and consecutive sentencing statutes violated Apprendi and are void ab initio; and (5) both his trial and appellate counsel were ineffective. On September 23, 2016, the State filed a motion to dismiss the petition.

         ¶ 9 On October 7, 2016, the defendant filed a. pro se "Motion to Recharacterize the Pending 2-1401 Petition as a Post-Conviction Petition" under the Act. During proceedings before the circuit court, the State noted that the defendant had to be admonished pursuant to Shellstrom "and then it goes into a Stage 1 determination." Thereafter, the defendant and the circuit court had the following colloquy:

"COURT: Do you understand if I allow this, this will be your one and only chance to file a post-conviction petition. Do you understand that?
DEFENDANT: I understand. As I was going through it, I was trying to understand the constitutional issues. My whole point was to preserve the constitutional issues that I was trying to raise in my petition, and that's why I raised the 2-1401. So when I found out that I couldn't preserve my constitutional ...

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