A leading appellate attorney reviews the Illinois Supreme Court opinion handed down Thursday, February 1.
People v. Huff, 2024 IL 128492
By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender
In 2000, Richard Huff was convicted of first degree murder. The State sought the death penalty, and Huff waived his right to a jury determination of death eligibility, instead opting to have the trial judge consider the issue. The judge found Huff death-eligible, but ultimately declined to impose a death sentence because Huff had no prior convictions. Huff was sentenced to life in prison. On direct appeal, and again later in a petition for relief from judgment, Huff challenged his life sentence, arguing that it violated Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000). Specifically, Huff asserted that the finding that led to his life sentence – that the murder was the result of brutal and heinous behavior, indicative of wanton cruelty – was improperly made by the trial judge rather than by a jury. Huff’s claim was rejected on the premise that where a defendant waives a jury determination of death-eligibility and a trial court finds him eligible for the death penalty, the court may impose a life sentence without running afoul of Apprendi.
In 2016, Huff filed the post-conviction petition underlying the instant appeal. In that petition, Huff again argued that his life sentence violated Apprendi, asserting that the law had changed and his claim was now viable. Huff acknowledged that his petition was untimely but asserted that the Apprendi violation rendered his sentence void and able to be challenged at any time. The trial court did not dismiss Huff’s petition within 90 days, so it advanced to second-stage proceedings and counsel was appointed. Counsel subsequently filed a Supreme Court Rule 651(c) certificate. In that certificate, counsel stated that she had consulted with Huff, that she had examined the record and researched the issues, and that she had not filed an amended petition because Huff’s pro se petition adequately set forth Huff’s claim. The State then filed a motion to dismiss the petition, alleging that it was untimely, barred by res judicata, and meritless. At the hearing on the State’s motion, appointed counsel stood on Huff’s petition. The court granted the motion to dismiss, finding Huff’s claim barred by res judicata.
On appeal, Huff argued that appointed counsel provided unreasonable assistance by standing on a petition that was deficient on its face. Huff asserted that counsel should have either amended the petition to make it legally viable or moved to withdraw. The appellate court rejected that argument. Appointed counsel’s filing of a Rule 651(c) certificate creates a rebuttable presumption that counsel provided reasonable assistance. Huff did not rebut that presumption here where he failed to show that any amendment was available that would have rendered his petition viable. The appellate court acknowledged the caselaw which allows appointed counsel to withdraw in such circumstances (People v. Greer, 212 Ill. 2d 192 (2004)) but declined to hold that withdrawal is required.
The Illinois Supreme Court granted leave to appeal and affirmed, albeit on different grounds. Specifically, the Court found that it need not resolve the issue of whether post-conviction counsel may stand on a pro se petition that counsel knows to be frivolous because here, there simply was no indication that counsel knew that Huff’s claim was frivolous. The Court noted that while Huff’s Apprendi claim had been rejected twice previously, Huff asserted in his petition that the law had evolved in such a manner as to render his claim viable and avoid res judicata concerns. And, while the trial court ultimately disagreed, the record did not demonstrate that counsel knew, or even believed, that the claim was frivolous when she elected to stand on the petition as filed.
In reaching this determination, the Court acknowledged that in Greer it had suggested, in response to a hypothetical question, that if appointed counsel knows a petitioners claims are frivolous or patently without merit, counsel has an ethical duty to withdraw. Ancillary to that question was the situation presented here, specifically where the petitioner’s pro se filing presents a weak legal claim in the best possible legal form and there is no indication that counsel knew the claim was frivolous. The Court’s holding today makes clear that in that situation, appointed post-conviction counsel is not obligated to withdraw.