In the People v. Burns (2019 IL App (4th) 170018), the Appellate Court of Illinois Fourth District reviewed and ultimately overturned the decision of the Circuit Court of Macon County to grant the State’s motion for dismissal of defendant’s amended pro se post-conviction petition.

Appellant Emerson T. Burns was convicted of first-degree murder of his six-month-old child, A.S. and sentenced to 50 years in prison following a bench trial in June 2011. Immediately thereafter, appellant unsuccessfully appealed his conviction, which was affirmed by the Appellate Court of Illinois Fourth District. Id. at ¶ 5. In December 2013, pursuant to the Post Conviction Hearing Act, appellant filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel related to appellant’s initial appeal. Id. at ¶ 6. The petition advanced to the second stage of proceedings in March 2014, with the trial court permitting post-conviction counsel to withdraw and appointing new counsel in December 2015. In August 2016, appellant (through counsel) filed an amended petition further alleging ineffective assistance of both trial and appellate counsel for failing to allow appellant to testify on his own behalf and failure to present evidence to rebut the State’s theory. Id. at ¶ 7. Appellant’s counsel failed to attach any of the relevant evidence or documents to the amended petition upon filing. As a result, the trial court dismissed the petition in December 2016 after concluding appellant forfeited claims because they “could have been raised on direct appeal” and “failed to demonstrate prejudice regarding his ineffective-assistance claims.” Id. at ¶ 9.

On appeal, appellant Burns argued that the trial court erred in dismissing his petition at the second stage because he had both made a substantial showing of ineffective assistance of counsel and, in the alternative, argued that the court should remand for further proceedings because his post-conviction counsel failed to comply with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 651(c). Id. at ¶ 12. Illinois Supreme Court Rule 651 (c) provides the specific duties required of appointed counsel in post-conviction proceedings. Specifically, that counsel has an obligation to certify that he/she has “consulted with petitioner either by phone, mail, electronic means or in person to ascertain [petitioner’s] contentions of deprivation of constitutional rights,” examined the record of the proceedings at trial and sentencing, and made any amendments to the petition that are necessary for the adequate presentation of the petitioner’s claims.” Id. at ¶ 20. Further, the rule requires that all evidence in support of petitioner’s claims be attached to all relevant motions, which post-conviction counsel failed to do in all accounts. Id. at ¶ 21. The court ruled that because their decision to remand would be made on this issue alone, they did not need to address nor analyze the remaining claims made by appellant. Id. at ¶ 23.

While not relevant to the court’s decision on Rule 651 (c), the court opined that in order to avoid an “explosive situation” related to denial of a petitioner’s right to testify, that all trial courts should “admonish the defendant personally that he alone possesses the right to choose whether to testify on his own behalf, and that he should make that decision after consulting with counsel. Trial courts should emphasize to the defendant that whatever trial counsel’s advice on this point may be, counsel cannot force the defendant to testify, nor can counsel prevent the defendant from testifying.” Id. at ¶ 24. The court concluded that in the event of an admonishment of this sort, defendants would be properly informed of their rights and insulated from attacks. Id. at ¶ 25.

The court ultimately accepted the State’s concession that appellant’s post-conviction counsel failed to comply with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 651 and remanded for further second-stage post-conviction proceedings. Id. at ¶ 13. Further, in addressing the failure to comply with the rule, the court directed the trial court to provide appellant with “new post-conviction counsel who shall have leave to amend and to add supporting documentation, as counsel deems necessary, in support of defendant’s claims.” Id. at ¶ 13.