A leading appellate attorney reviews the Illinois Supreme Court opinion handed down Thursday, June 6.

People v. Jefferson, 2024 IL 128676

By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender

Trenton Jefferson was charged with the murder of Marcus Gosa in 2011. It was undisputed that the cause of Gosa’s death was a gunshot wound to the chest. Jefferson’s first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted at a second trial. At that second trial, the State requested and was granted jury instructions and a special interrogatory on the question of whether Jefferson had personally discharged the firearm that proximately caused Gosa’s death, for purposes of possible sentencing enhancement. The jury answered that question in the negative.

On direct appeal, the court reversed Jefferson’s conviction and remanded for a new trial due to the improper admission of irrelevant and prejudicial statements by a State witness. On remand, Jefferson filed a motion to preclude the State from introducing any evidence that he was armed with a firearm or personally discharged a firearm causing Gosa’s death given the jury’s finding on the special interrogatory. Jefferson cited collateral estoppel principles in support of his motion. Ultimately, the trial court entered an order granting the motion in part, but did not actually bar any specific items of evidence. Instead, the court barred the State from “proceeding on a theory, and presenting any evidence or argument that proof exists beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant was armed with a firearm and personally discharged the firearm that proximately caused the death of Marcus Gosa” (emphasis in original). In declining to bar specific testimony, the court noted that the same testimony was consistent with a theory of accountability. The State appealed.

The appellate court, over Jefferson’s objection, first determined that it had jurisdiction over the State’s interlocutory appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 604(a)(1) because the trial court’s order had the “substantive effect” of suppressing evidence. On the merits, the court held that because the purpose of the special interrogatory was to enable the State to obtain a sentencing enhancement, it could not be used for any other purpose and had no preclusive effect such that estoppel principles did not apply.

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court. First, the Court concluded that it had jurisdiction because the trial court’s order had the substantive effect of suppressing evidence about Jefferson’s personal discharge of a firearm in this matter. A court need not identify specific items of evidence for its ruling to be appealable under Rule 604(a)(1). Indeed, such orders are rarely so specific because it is impossible to know beforehand exactly what a witness’s testimony might be.

On the merits, the Court first engaged in a detailed discussion of the doctrine of estoppel, or “issue preclusion” under the double jeopardy clause, as recognized by the US Supreme Court in Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970), and discussed by the Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Jones, 207 Ill. 2d 122 (2003). The parties took different positions on the scope of the doctrine, with the State citing to Currier v. Virginia, 585 U.S. 493 (2018) (plurality opinion), as support for very narrow application of the doctrine, and Jefferson arguing that the doctrine applies more broadly. Ultimately, the Court found no need to resolve the question, concluding that Jefferson would fail on the merits, regardless.

The Court held that the jury’s negative answer to the special interrogatory was not a finding of fact, but was merely a determination that the State had failed to prove the sentencing enhancement beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court declined to adopt Jefferson’s argument that, when viewed in light of the evidence and argument presented at his trial, the special interrogatory verdict must mean that the jury found he could not have acted as the principal in killing Gosa. Instead, the Court noted that some of the jurors may have believed Jefferson acted as a principal, while others may have thought him accountable for the acts of another man with him at the time, Brownlee, but all of the jurors believed him guilty of murder under one theory or the other. That is, the special interrogatory verdict may only have reflected uncertainty over who fired the fatal shot, and such uncertainty is not inconsistent with allowing the State to again present evidence and argument on retrial that Jefferson may have personally discharged the firearm which caused Gosa’s death.

The Court went on to clarify that while the State may present evidence of Jefferson’s personal discharge, it may not seek a sentence enhancement on that basis on remand. The State conceded as much in the trial court and did not advance a different position on appeal. Accordingly, in the event Jefferson is convicted on remand, he should face only the traditional sentencing range without any firearm enhancement.