Brown v. Sternes, 090402 FED7, 01-2326

Docket Nº:01-2326
Party Name:Brown v. Sternes
Case Date:January 08, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

JOHNNIE BROWN, Petitioner-Appellant,


JERRY STERNES, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.



In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit


January 8, 2002


September 4, 2002

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 00 C 5341—William T. Hart, Judge.

Before POSNER, COFFEY and DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judges.

COFFEY, Circuit Judge. This case is before us on a writ of habeas corpus. In 1991, Petitioner-Appellant Johnnie Brown (“Brown”) was arrested, and shortly thereafter convicted after a bench trial of armed robbery and was sentenced to the maximum term of 30 years imprisonment. After exhausting his appeals in the Illinois state court system, Brown petitioned for relief in the federal district court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel and arguing that his attorneys failed to bring his mental problems to the court’s attention and that the proceedings in the state court infringed upon his constitutional right not to be tried when mentally incompetent. The district court dismissed Brown’s petition on April 19, 2001. Brown appeals. For the reasons we set forth, we conclude that Brown was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. We remand with instructions to grant the writ of habeas corpus unless the State of Illinois elects to retry Brown within a reasonable time to be determined by the federal district court.

This case exposes a tragic breakdown in the Cook County, Illinois criminal justice system. A mentally ill criminal defendant of recent vintage was arrested, put on trial, convicted of armed robbery, and sentenced to a term of thirty years without anyone taking proper notice of the fact that this same defendant had been diagnosed on more than one occasion, confined and treated (from 1986-88), and medicated intermittently for chronic schizophrenia for an extended period of years. His court-appointed attorneys provided a halfhearted defense, neglecting to thoroughly investigate his medical condition and failing to procure medical records establishing that he suffered from a myriad of psychiatric problems. Thereafter, the attorneys proffered self-serving affidavits once their lackadaisical lawyering was revealed and challenged. Their less-thanlawyer-like attention to duty caused problems for the courtappointed psychologist and psychiatrist. These doctors, relying on inadequate data, filed reports with the court that could best be classified as incomplete, as they ignored essential documentation of his medical history (i.e., his past psychiatric records), a basic element and requirement of any competency evaluation, and furthermore overlooked important information easily ascertainable from the defendant’s family members. The state probation officer, in preparing the pre-sentence investigative report, neglected to interview the defendant’s family members, to make a thorough inquiry about Brown’s prior confinement, (i.e., his adjustment to his institution), to investigate the circumstances surrounding his general discharge from the Navy, or his mental health history. Thus, the sentencing judge was less than well-informed of critical information, including the defendant’s long and welldocumented history of mental illness, as well as his prolonged period of treatment and confinement in a psychiatric unit during his prior imprisonment.


A. Brown’s Medical History

Brown’s medical records reflect that he was initially diagnosed to be suffering from chronic schizophrenia1 in 1986 while incarcerated in the Menard Correctional Facility in southern Illinois. During his period of confinement, Brown was found to be unable to function in the minimum security unit of the facility because he was mentally incapable of following the orders of the security personnel and counselors, which in turn necessitated his transfer to the prison’s psychiatric unit. Brown’s treating psychiatrist at Menard, Dr. Vallabhaneni, noted in his reports throughout 1986 that Brown had “no ability to communicate” and had admitted to hearing voices that “help him to do his time.” Dr. Vallabhaneni diagnosed him as suffering from chronic schizophrenia and prescribed various anti-psychotic medications for Brown on a regular basis and continued to treat his mental illness until his release in 1988. During the defendant’s period of treatment, Dr. Vallabhaneni noted on at least four occasions in 1986 and 1987 that Brown was “probably hallucinating,” and that Brown was not only uncooperative, but demonstrated little or no insight into the existence of his psychiatric problems and frequently refused to take his prescribed medication. Throughout this period Brown insisted that he was not mentally ill and spoke very little about his mental condition with Dr. Vallabhaneni. After nearly two years of confinement and treatment, Dr. Vallabhaneni noted on May 1, 1988 that Brown’s psychiatric problems are “in a chronic state and he is not making any progress or worsening either.”

In 1989, after Brown’s release from prison, he applied for Social Security disability benefits. As part of his application for benefits, Dr. Mark Amdur, a consulting psychiatrist for the Social Security Administration, evaluated Brown and once more diagnosed him as suffering from chronic schizophrenia. Dr. Amdur observed and diagnosed the following symptoms: impaired concentration and attention, stilted speech with moderately severe irrelevancy and illogicality, loosened associations, and auditory hallucinations. Additionally, Dr. Amdur interviewed Brown’s mother, who is a nurse, about his mental state, and she advised the doctor that his “mind is random” and that he makes sense one minute and then “goes into autistic position and talks to himself.” Brown’s mother also reported that he told her that he heard voices. Unfortunately, not one of these records referred to above was reviewed by the court-appointed mental health doctors who examined Brown, much less introduced into evidence by Brown’s attorneys at his state criminal trial.

B. Brown’s Arrest

The police report and the trial testimony from the victim and the defendant outline essentially similar conduct on the part of the defendant at the time of the crime. At about 12:45 a.m. on March 26, 1991, roughly an hour before the armed robbery occurred, the defendant and the victim, James Brown,2 engaged in a brief conversation about a cigarette. About an hour later, the defendant encountered the victim a second time. According to the victim, the defendant grabbed him from behind, held a pearl-handled knife to his throat, and demanded “everything [he] had,” which amounted to fifty cents and an adult bookstore token. The defendant, however, testified that he was in fear for he believed the victim was following him and that he thought the victim was going to attack him. The defendant said he grabbed the victim, “showed him” the knife, demanded to know why the victim was following him, and only then did he ask the victim for money. Brown was apprehended a few minutes later, and the police recovered a pearl-handled knife, some change, and an adult bookstore token.

C. Brown’s Pre-Trial Proceedings

On April 17, 1991, Asst. Public Defender Camille Kozlowski was appointed to represent Brown. Six months later, on October 28, 1991, on what was to have been the date of Brown’s criminal trial, Kozlowski asked the court for a continuance in order that she might arrange for Brown to be evaluated both for “mental competency” and for “sanity.” When the judge asked why she had waited until the day of trial to raise this issue, Kozlowski replied that just that morning, Brown had informed her that Professor Thomas Geraghty, director of the Northwestern University Law Center, had previously represented Brown. Kozlowski telephoned Geraghty, who advised her that Brown had once been found “unfit for trial” and that while incarcerated at Menard he had received “large doses” of “psychotropic” medication.

The trial judge, reluctant to grant the continuance on such short notice, was eventually persuaded by an insistent Ms. Kozlowski. She stated that after first meeting Brown, she realized that there was “something different” about him. She complained to the judge of her “difficulties” communicating with Brown, that he did “not answer some of my questions,” and that he “yelled at my law clerk.” She also told the judge that this new information about Brown’s mental issues “certainly answers some of the questions that I had.” The rest of her onthe-record statements bear quoting at length, especially in light of her later prevarications:

Your honor, if there is an issue of fitness or sanity, I believe justice is not going to be served unless we have that answer, an answer to that. I would apologize to the Court for any inconvenience, but this is a serious case as it is a Class X case; Mr. Brown is looking at six to thirty years in the penitentiary. And I think it’s very important that we look into these issues. I am not doing this at the last minute to avoid trial, obviously, your Honor, I would only do it because this man, who is the legal assistant dean at Northwestern indicated that he—Mr. Brown—has some serious background, psychiatric background.
Kozlowski concluded her supplication by notifying the judge that she had just begun to attempt to secure Brownsrecords from the Psychiatric Institute at Menard, that the authorities there statedthey are looking for them, and that shejust need[ed] to examine those records. The judge granted the motion and set a status hearing for November 25, 1991, after a Behavioral Clinic fitness and sanity evaluation (BCX) could be performed. The record reflects that during Browns...

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