In People v. Morales, 2019 IL App (1st) 160225, the First District Appellate Court reviewed and ultimately reversed the decision of the Circuit Court of Cook County dismissing Morales’ post-conviction petition at the first stage of proceedings, and remanded for second-stage proceedings consistent with the Post-Conviction Hearing Act.

Appellant Ismael Morales was convicted at trial, along with five codefendants, of the 2007 robbery and murder of Francisco Reyes. The decisions in Morales’ (and codefendants’) case have been the subject of numerous appeals before the court, a number of which have resulted in remands for new trial. The subject of the appeal before the First District concerning Ismael Morales was that of the first-stage dismissal of his post-conviction petition. The petition alleged that the State, at trial, violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) by failing to disclose the existence of an agreement between the State and its main witness, Francisco Garcia, for the State’s assistance in the witness’ immigration matters in exchange for his testimony. Id. at ¶ 2. Of secondary concern for the court was the claim of actual innocence based on the affidavit of Victor Redding, who claimed to have witnessed the attack on Reyes, who maintained that Morales was not one of the participants. Id. at ¶ 2. Redding’s affidavit directly contradicted testimony by Garcia and his wife, Sylvia Ortiz, at trial, who claimed to have seen Morales present during the attack and saw him strike Reyes with a rock. Id at ¶ 7-8.

Following conviction at trial, in November 2015, Morales filed a post-conviction petition, claiming a violation of Brady v. Maryland for the State’s failure to disclose their agreement with Garcia related to the exchange of testimony at trial for immigration matter assistance. Id. at ¶ 9. Morales produced a letter from the State’s Attorney’s office to INS (Immigration and Nationality Service) and a transcribed voicemail from Garcia to the State’s Attorney’s office in support of his petition. Additionally, the petition contained a claim of actual innocence, supported by an affidavit from Victor Redding, a witness to the robbery and murder of Reyes who asserted he was “sure that Mr. Ismael Morales was not involved.” Id. at ¶ 12. The circuit court summarily dismissed the petition, claiming that the Brady violation was frivolous because the jury “knew that these people were in the country illegally.” Id. at ¶ 13. The court found the claim of actual innocence to be “not in any way compelling” and lacking credibility. Id. at ¶ 13.

The Appellate Court’s analysis of Morales’ petition (and the court’s decision to dismiss it) focused exclusively on the evaluation criteria set out by the Post-Conviction Hearing Act for first-stage proceedings. As noted by the Appellate Court, under the Act, petitions may only be dismissed at the first stage of proceedings if they have “no arguable basis either in law or fact” and are based on an “indisputably meritless legal theory or a fanciful factual allegation.” Id. at ¶ 18. In the Court’s de novo review of the first-stage dismissal, they took the allegations in the petition as true and construed them liberally in favor of the petitioner. Id. at ¶ 18.

The United States Supreme Court held in Brady that due process requires the State to disclose “evidence favorable to the accused and material to guilt or punishment.” Id. at ¶ 20. The Appellate Court noted when a defendant alleges a violation of due process based on a violation of Brady, they must demonstrate three things: (i) the allegedly withheld evidence was favorable as either exculpatory or impeachment evidence, (ii) the prosecutor either willfully or inadvertently suppressed evidence, and (iii) the evidence was material to guilt or punishment. Id. at ¶ 20.

Morales alleged  that the withheld evidence of the agreement between the State and Garcia (and Ortiz) was material to his conviction because the State’s case hinged on that eyewitness testimony and was favorable to him because it had impeachment value. Id. at ¶ 21. The Appellate Court agreed with Morales that the evidence provided (INS letter and voicemail) constituted evidence of a pre-existing agreement that the State failed to disclose. Id. at ¶ 24. Moreover, the court held that while there exists the possibility for more than one interpretation of the information contained within the INS letter and voicemail, it is not the court’s responsibility to weigh competing interpretations, but rather to construe them liberally in Morales’ favor. Doing so lead to the conclusion that there was arguably an agreement between the State and Garcia that he would receive assistance in exchange for his testimony at trial. Id. at ¶ 26.

The court asserted that the State may be able to challenge the actual existence of a deal between both parties in later stages of proceedings, but under standards for first-stage review and the liberal construction afforded to Morales, the court found sufficient evidence in support of Morales’ claims regarding the State’s failure to disclose a pre-trial agreement. Id. at ¶ 29.

The State conceded Morales’ favorability argument regarding the impeachment value of the alleged agreement between the State and Garcia, acknowledging that it would have had the obligation to disclose any immigration deal it had with Morales. Id. at ¶ 31. The Appellate Court agreed with Morales that the disclosures of the discussions and alleged deal with Garcia would arguably have been favorable to Morales. Id. at ¶ 33. Moreover, in the context of materiality, the court held that it is “at least arguable that evidence of an agreement for immigration assistance between Garcia and the State would have been material” under the standards for materiality applied in ineffective assistance of counsel cases (Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 434 (1995) and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 694 (1984)). Id. at ¶ 35-36.

Under the Kyles standard, the court asserted in response to the State’s argument that Morales must only establish that “the favorable evidence could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict.” Id. at ¶ 36. Ultimately, the court concluded that the information Morales identified was material as the truthfulness and memory of Garcia, whose testimony was “critical” to the State’s case. Id. at ¶ 37. The court rejected all arguments extending the Brady analysis to Ortiz. Id. at ¶ 38. The court did not evaluate any claims of actual innocence, as they are not necessitated nor permitted by the Act. Id. at ¶ 42.

The Appellate Court of Illinois First District reversed the first-stage dismissal or Morales’ post-conviction petition and remanded for second-stage proceedings consistent with the Act. Id. at ¶ 45.