People v. Knapp

Decision Date03 December 2020
Docket NumberDocket No. 124992
Citation450 Ill.Dec. 523,181 N.E.3d 875,2020 IL 124992
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellee, v. Justin KNAPP, Appellant.
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

James E. Chadd, State Appellate Defender, Peter A. Carusona and Thomas A. Karalis, Deputy Defenders, and Kelly M. Taylor and Andrew J. Boyd, Assistant Appellate Defenders, of the Office of the State Appellate Defender, of Ottawa, for appellant.

Kwame Raoul, Attorney General, of Springfield (Jane Elinor Notz, Solicitor General, and Michael M. Glick and Alasdair Whitney, Assistant Attorneys General, of Chicago, of counsel), for the People.


JUSTICE KILBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

¶ 1 This appeal requires us to review the circuit court's summary dismissal of a petition seeking relief under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act (Act) ( 725 ILCS 5/122-1 et seq. (West 2014)). The pro se petition alleged, in relevant part, that petitioner Justin Knapp did not voluntarily relinquish his right to testify at his trial. The appellate court affirmed. 2019 IL App (2d) 160162, ¶ 68, 436 Ill.Dec. 414, 142 N.E.3d 815.

¶ 2 In this court, petitioner argues that the appellate court erred in affirming summary dismissal of his postconviction petition because the court applied "too stringent of a standard" at the first stage of postconviction proceedings. Petitioner further argues that the appellate court misunderstood his right-to-testify claim when it found that his claim was positively rebutted by the record. For the following reasons, we affirm the appellate court's judgment.


¶ 4 Petitioner Justin Knapp and codefendant Luis Rodriguez were charged with attempted first degree murder, mob action, and aggravated battery in connection with the stabbing of petitioner's friend Jorge Avitia. The victim survived the attack and identified petitioner and Rodriguez as the assailants.

¶ 5 A. Trial Proceedings

¶ 6 At petitioner's jury trial in the circuit court of McHenry County, the State argued that petitioner and Rodriguez were members of the Norteños 14 street gang and that they attacked the victim based on his alleged association with a rival street gang, the Latin Kings.

¶ 7 The State's evidence showed that in the early morning hours of June 10, 2008, petitioner, the victim, and their mutual friend Andres Pedroza were at Pedroza's house in Crystal Lake. Pedroza, who was 19 years old, testified that he was friends with both petitioner and the victim since elementary school. At approximately 2:30 a.m., another friend, Christian Saenz, arrived at Pedroza's home with codefendant Rodriguez. The group of men left together in Saenz's car. After stopping briefly at an apartment building, Saenz drove them to a residence located at 672 Brink Street in Woodstock. The group entered the home and sat together in the living room.

¶ 8 At some point, the victim and Rodriguez began to argue. Pedroza testified that he was sitting next to petitioner on the couch during the argument. Pedroza heard Rodriguez curse at the victim and call the victim a "King killer," a statement Pedroza understood as a reference to the Latin Kings street gang. Pedroza did not know whether petitioner was involved in the argument, but Pedroza did hear petitioner talking while Rodriguez and the victim argued. Pedroza could not hear what either petitioner or the victim said during the argument. Pedroza denied knowing whether petitioner was in a street gang but acknowledged that petitioner had tattoos on his face and arm that might be associated with the Norteños 14 gang.

¶ 9 As the argument continued, Pedroza told the victim "let's go," and they left the house together and walked toward a train station. After leaving the house, Pedroza realized that Rodriguez and petitioner were following them. Pedroza heard Rodriguez say "14 something." Petitioner was also talking, but Pedroza could not understand what he was saying. Eventually, Rodriguez and petitioner caught up to Pedroza and the victim. Pedroza saw petitioner and Rodriguez repeatedly hit the victim. Pedroza also saw either Rodriguez or petitioner holding a "shiny" object that Pedroza thought may have been a screwdriver, but Pedroza could not remember who was holding the object.

¶ 10 At some point, Pedroza intervened as the other two men attacked the victim. Pedroza grabbed petitioner and asked him what he was doing. After Rodriguez hit the victim one more time, both petitioner and Rodriguez ran away together. The victim fell to the ground and lost consciousness. Pedroza called 911.

¶ 11 On cross-examination, Pedroza conceded that he and petitioner consumed alcohol that night. Pedroza acknowledged that he was unaware of any prior fights between petitioner and the victim.

¶ 12 Several police and paramedics responded to Pedroza's 911 call, and they located the victim lying unconscious in a parking lot. Pedroza was also present and reported the details of the attack. Paramedics discovered that the victim sustained multiple stab wounds, including a puncture wound that was later revealed to have punctured his heart. After the victim was stabilized, medical personnel transported him to a hospital, where he was treated for three stab wounds to his left collarbone, left armpit, and right lower abdomen.

¶ 13 Pedroza provided police officers with a description of Rodriguez and petitioner, including information that both men were wearing white shirts. Pedroza also told officers the direction that they ran after the attack.

¶ 14 Woodstock police officer Daniel Henry testified that, after he received a radio description of the assailants, he saw petitioner, who matched Pedroza's description, standing near the front door of 672 Brink Street. Petitioner was holding two red gas cans. Petitioner ran inside the residence when he saw Officer Henry's marked police car. Officer Henry knocked on the door, and he was let inside by the owner, James Kelley.

¶ 15 After entering the house, Officer Henry and his partner located petitioner lying on a couch under a blanket. Petitioner's white shirt and shoes were muddy, he was sweating, and he appeared out of breath. As the officers arrested petitioner, he became aggressive and started yelling references to the Norteños 14 gang. Petitioner also threatened to kill the officers and their families. The officers arrested petitioner and removed him from the residence.

¶ 16 When petitioner was brought outside, Pedroza, who was brought to the scene by another police officer, positively identified petitioner as one of the victim's attackers. Pedroza later identified Rodriguez as the second assailant in a photo array at the police station.

¶ 17 James Kelley testified that he lived with his girlfriend at 672 Brink Street, the residence where petitioner and Rodriguez reportedly argued with the victim. When Kelley arrived home the night of June 9, 2008, Rodriguez and another man were at his house. Kelley went to bed about 12:30 a.m. but was awakened in the early morning hours to the sounds of "banging" on his front door. Kelley saw petitioner "pacing" inside his house. Kelley did not recognize petitioner and did not know why petitioner was in his house. Petitioner asked Kelley not to open the door. Kelley ignored petitioner's request and told petitioner to sit down. Kelley testified that petitioner laid down on a couch and covered himself with a blanket.

¶ 18 Kelley opened the door to his residence and saw police officers standing outside. Kelley also saw two red gas cans outside his front door that he did not remember placing there. Kelley allowed the officers to enter his house and gave consent to their search of the house. After police officers entered, Kelley heard petitioner "freaking out on [the] couch[,] screaming things in Spanish, [and] threatening the police." Kelley described petitioner as "very aggressive" and heard him "yelling out some kind of gang thing about Nortenos."

¶ 19 On cross-examination, Kelley admitted that he was friends with Rodriguez and that on prior occasions he gave Rodriguez permission to "bring people to [Kelley's] house and party." Kelley denied that petitioner was ever at his house prior to the incident.

¶ 20 Kelley's girlfriend, Katrina Cardella, testified and generally corroborated Kelley's testimony. Cardella heard petitioner make several threats to police officers, their wives, and their children. Petitioner also threatened the lives of Kelley and Cardella. Cardella further testified that petitioner "kept yelling gang slogans about the 14s and how he was a gang banger and they never die."

¶ 21 The victim testified at trial, largely corroborating Pedroza's account of the events preceding the incident. Specifically, the victim confirmed that, prior to being attacked by petitioner and Rodriguez, he argued with them "about Nortenos and Kings." The victim knew petitioner was a member of the Norteños 14 street gang. The victim remembered being initially "attacked" by both petitioner and Rodriguez and that both men were "punching" his body. The next thing the victim remembered was waking up in a hospital.

¶ 22 On cross-examination, the victim denied being a member of a street gang. The victim conceded that he and petitioner never fought before and described petitioner as "basically" his best friend prior to the incident. The victim acknowledged that he and Pedroza were drinking alcohol prior to the incident. The victim confirmed that he did not see petitioner or Rodriguez holding a knife during the attack and he did not know who stabbed him.

¶ 23 The State introduced the testimony of two Crystal Lake police officers with experience in street gangs, Officer Paul Olazak and Officer Dimitri Boulahanis. Officer Olazak testified that petitioner admitted being a member of the Norteños 14 gang, a rival of the Latin Kings gang. Similarly, Officer Boulahanis testified that he was aware petitioner was a member of the Norteños 14 gang. Officer...

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