969 F.3d 792 (7th Cir. 2020), 19-1795, Fieldman v. Brannon

Docket Nº:19-1795
Citation:969 F.3d 792
Opinion Judge:Kanne, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Shan FIELDMAN, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Christine BRANNON, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.
Attorney:Kathleen Zellner, Attorney, Nicholas M. Curran, Attorney, Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates, Downers Grove, IL, for Petitioner-Appellee. Eldad Malamuth, Attorney, Office of the Attorney General, Criminal Appeals Division, Chicago, IL, for Respondent-Appellant.
Judge Panel:Before Flaum, Manion, and Kanne, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:August 12, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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969 F.3d 792 (7th Cir. 2020)

Shan FIELDMAN, Petitioner-Appellee,


Christine BRANNON, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 19-1795

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 12, 2020

Argued January 16, 2020.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 15-cv-1389 - Nancy J. Rosenstengel, Chief Judge.

Kathleen Zellner, Attorney, Nicholas M. Curran, Attorney, Kathleen T. Zellner & Associates, Downers Grove, IL, for Petitioner-Appellee.

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Eldad Malamuth, Attorney, Office of the Attorney General, Criminal Appeals Division, Chicago, IL, for Respondent-Appellant.

Before Flaum, Manion, and Kanne, Circuit Judges.

Kanne, Circuit Judge.

On July 23, 2010, Shan Fieldman climbed into a truck in a Walmart parking lot and told a hitman that he wanted his ex-wife and her boyfriend killed. The hitman was in fact an undercover police officer who videotaped their conversation. Fieldman was charged and tried in Illinois state court for solicitation of murder for hire.

Fieldman defended against the state's charges by contesting his intent (a necessary element of the offense) to have his ex-wife and her boyfriend killed. To that end, because a police informant brokered his meeting with the hitman, Fieldman sought to testify about his interactions with that informant during the five weeks before his conversation with the hitman. Fieldman believed this testimony would provide the jury with critical contextual information about his state of mind and demonstrate that his meeting with the hitman was a charade.

But the Illinois trial court did not allow the jury to hear this testimony because the court concluded it was irrelevant. Fieldman was convicted and unsuccessfully appealed his convictions through the Illinois state courts.

In this federal collateral attack on his conviction, Fieldman contends the court's exclusion of his testimony deprived him of his federal constitutional right to present a complete defense. We agree. The court's exclusion was contrary to clearly established federal law confirming a defendant's right to testify, on his own behalf, about circumstances bearing directly on his guilt or innocence or the jury's ascertainment of guilt. See Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 106 S.Ct. 2142, 90 L.Ed.2d 636 (1986); Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44, 107 S.Ct. 2704, 97 L.Ed.2d 37 (1987). And the exclusion of material portions of his testimony had a detrimental effect on his interests because it undercut his entire defense and effectively prevented him from challenging the state's strongest evidence. We therefore affirm the district court's grant of habeas relief.


In the summer of 2010, Trina Bennett, a police informant who was an acquaintance of Fieldman, relayed to Illinois State Police Agent Darrell Stafford, that a man, Shan Fieldman, wanted his ex-wife killed. After receiving this tip, Agent Stafford obtained a court order and began recording phone calls Trina made to Fieldman.

The first two times Trina tried to reach Fieldman, her calls went unanswered: she would leave a message, but Fieldman never called her back. On the third try, however, Fieldman's girlfriend answered the phone and handed it to Fieldman. In that call, Trina arranged an in-person meeting between Fieldman and a "friend" of Trina's, Earl Candler, who was an undercover Illinois State Police sergeant posing as a hitman. The meeting would take place later that day, and Trina advised Fieldman that he would need a $200 down payment.

On the evening of Friday, July 23, 2010, Fieldman met with Candler in the parking lot of the Walmart in Pontiac, Illinois. The meeting took place inside Candler's truck, which was equipped with audio and video recording devices.

Candler opened up the conversation by offering Fieldman a beer then stating that Trina relayed Fieldman had a problem. Fieldman agreed and stated his ex-wife, Shelley, was a "big problem." Candler responded that he, too, once "had an ex-wife"

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who "had an unfortunate accident." Fieldman told Candler that he wanted Shelley killed. Candler added that Trina mentioned Shelley's boyfriend, Alan Chrossfield. Fieldman replied, "She's got a boyfriend but um I mean, if he happens to be there and that's the only way it can be handled, then, but if not."

Candler pressed Fieldman for details that would aid in carrying out the murder for hire. Fieldman did not bring Shelley's picture or address with him to the meeting, but he explained she maintained a Facebook account under her maiden name, where Candler could find her photos. Fieldman described Shelley's house and car and divulged that Shelley and Alan spent a fair amount of time drinking in the garage. But Fieldman advised Candler that the pair would be out of town that weekend, and that he didn't want Candler to act too quickly.

Fieldman agreed to pay Candler $7500 to murder Shelley and Alan, which was discounted because Trina owed Candler a favor. But Fieldman did not bring any money to the meeting. Candler warned Fieldman that failure to pay was not an option, and, "understand that I will get my money." To obtain a down payment, Candler dialed Fieldman's girlfriend, and Fieldman arranged to gather whatever cash she carried in her purse. So, Fieldman left and returned with $100 for a down payment, explaining it was all he could obtain. At Candler's request, Fieldman handed over a written IOU for the remainder, payable "at the completion of the job." Candler informed Fieldman this would be their final interaction and that, by the same time next week, Shelley— and possibly Alan— would be dead.

Pontiac Police arrested Fieldman later that evening during a traffic stop, and Fieldman was charged and tried in Illinois state court for the solicitation of murder for hire of Shelley and Alan. 720 ILCS 5/8-1.2.

At trial, Shelley testified that she and Fieldman got along amicably after their divorce in 2002, and Alan and Fieldman had become friends. Indeed, Alan went to New Orleans to live with Fieldman while Fieldman provided him with work. During that time, Fieldman and Alan lived together for about five or six months. The state also played the video-recording of Fieldman's meeting with Candler, as well as the recorded phone calls between Trina and Fieldman.

Fieldman took the stand to testify in his defense. He contended that he did not commit solicitation of murder for hire because he never intended for Candler to kill Shelley; and under Illinois law, "[a] person commits the offense of solicitation of murder for hire when, with the intent that the offense of first-degree murder be committed, he [] procures another to commit that offense." 720 ILCS 5/8-1.2(a) (emphasis added). Fieldman asserted that he only agreed to meet with a hitman because he was afraid of Trina.

He testified that Trina had incessantly badgered him over the five weeks leading up to the meeting, and he felt agreeing to the meeting was the best way to get Trina to leave him alone. So, he decided to go to the meeting, gather information, and relay that information to friends of his who worked at the Dwight police station a half a block from Shelley's house.

When assessing the credibility of Fieldman's testimony alongside the audio and video recordings, a rational juror could reasonably disbelieve Fieldman's version of events and convict Fieldman for the solicitation of murder for hire of Shelley and Alan. But the jury never heard critical testimony about why Fieldman feared Trina. Because of its importance, we recount the omitted testimony about Fieldman's

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interactions with Trina in the two months leading up to the meeting with Candler.

In late May 2010, Fieldman's girlfriend, Talia, introduced him to Trina.1 It's safe to say that Fieldman characterizes Trina as a seedy character who was always seeking a way to procure money from the people around her. Upon finding out that Fieldman was an electrician, Trina remarked that electricians make good money and asked specific questions about his pension and benefits.

In mid-June, a few weeks after Fieldman met Trina, he and Talia went to a gathering at Trina's house. There, she regaled him with a story of a time she broke into a grocery store and took cigarettes and lottery tickets. Trina also casually told him that she robbed an elderly man's house for fun, duct taped him to a chair, and then "bl[e]w his brains out" in front of a child. Fieldman was frightened and sickened by this revelation. Trina continued and asked Fieldman if he had "ever been mad at anybody," because she "had people that she would know could take care of jobs if [he] had that." Fieldman responded that he had been mad at people— he was only human after all— but he had no interest in having anyone killed. Trina brought up Shelley and asked whether he "ever wanted anything done to her." Fieldman said no, but Trina pressed on, telling him that "I know some people in prison and I know lots of people. I can get that job done anytime you want." Startled, Fieldman replied that he wanted no part of that, and walked away. He and Talia left Trina's house shortly thereafter.

Over the next couple of weeks, Trina repeatedly called Talia and asked to speak to Fieldman; she also kept "bugging" Talia for money. Fieldman refused to speak with her and did not return her calls. Talia, perhaps tired of receiving so many calls from Trina about needing money, eventually told Fieldman he needed to call her back. Fieldman called Trina back, and she said that she had people visiting from Chicago "here to do the job" and that Fieldman needed to meet with her to give her $200-$300. Fieldman told her, "no way," and...

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