People v. Muhammad-Ali, 012221 ILCA1, 1-17-1721

Docket Nº:1-17-1721
Opinion Judge:PRESIDING MIKVA JUSTICE
Party Name:v. v. SOLOMON MUHAMMAD-ALI, Defendant-Appellant. THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Judge Panel:PRESIDING JUSTICE MIKVA delivered the judgment of the court. Justices Connors and Oden Johnson concurred in the judgment.
Case Date:January 22, 2021
Court:Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District

2021 IL App (1st) 171721-U

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

SOLOMON MUHAMMAD-ALI, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 1-17-1721

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

January 22, 2021

This order was filed under Supreme Court Rule 23 and is not precedent except in the limited circumstances allowed under Rule 23(e)(1).

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 13 CR 23742 Honorable Ursula Walowski, Judge Presiding.

PRESIDING JUSTICE MIKVA delivered the judgment of the court. Justices Connors and Oden Johnson concurred in the judgment.

ORDER

PRESIDING MIKVA JUSTICE

¶ 1 Held: Trial court abused its discretion where it denied defense counsel's motion for a continuance due to illness.

¶ 2 The defendant in this case, Solomon Muhammad-Ali, was convicted of aggravated domestic battery following a jury trial. The trial court sentenced him to three years in prison. On appeal, Mr. Muhammad-Ali argues that (1) the trial court abused its discretion in denying his counsel's motion for a continuance where counsel was suffering from an illness, and that this prevented him from receiving a fair trial, (2) the State improperly asked the jury to empathize with the victim to bolster her credibility, and (3) the trial court failed to conduct a proper inquiry pursuant to People v. Krankel, 102 Ill.2d 181 (1984), after counsel alleged his own ineffectiveness.

¶ 3 The State in this case failed, despite being granted three continuances, to file a timely brief in this matter. On October 2, 2020-seventeen months after Mr. Muhammad-Ali had filed his opening brief and over nine months after the last date given for the State to respond-this court granted Mr. Muhammad-Ali's motion to decide the issues based solely on his opening brief and the record on appeal.

¶ 4 For the following reasons, we reverse Mr. Muhammad-Ali's conviction and remand for a new trial.

¶ 5 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 6 Mr. Muhammad-Ali was charged with aggravated domestic battery following an incident with his then-girlfriend, Ashley Smith. He was assigned a public defender on January 9, 2014. On March 24, 2014, private attorney Thomas O'Gara filed an appearance on behalf of Mr. Muhammad-Ali, and the public defender's office withdrew from the case. At the request of Mr. Muhammad-Ali, the court held a conference, pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 402 (eff. July 1, 2012), on June 9, 2014, and the case was continued by agreement until June 19 for Mr. Muhammad-Ali and his family to consider the State's offer. On June 19, 2014, Mr. O'Gara withdrew from the case and the public defender's office again filed an appearance. The parties continued the case by agreement multiple times in what appears from the record to be the normal course of discovery.

¶7 Between April 22, 2015, and September 16, 2015, Mr. Muhammad-Ali made several motions for continuances, while attempting to again obtain new private counsel. During the September 16 hearing, the trial court told Mr. Muhammad-Ali, "I will give you a 30-day date, and I will mark it final. If you don't have a private attorney by then, let [the public defender] know beforehand. He is working on the case, but we need to move this forward." Mr. Muhammad-Ali was unable to obtain a private attorney by the next hearing, and the public defender's office was assigned to continue with the case. On November 30, 2015, Mr. Muhammad-Ali filed his answer to discovery and the case was set for a bench trial on January 26, 2016.

¶ 8 On January 26, 2016, Mr. Muhammad-Ali again moved for a continuance to obtain private counsel, which the court granted. On February 8, 2016, the public defender's office withdrew from the case, and private attorney Bernard Shelton filed an appearance on behalf of Mr. Muhammad-Ali. Mr. Shelton moved for continuances during that hearing and again on March 2, 2016, to obtain discovery materials from Mr. Muhammad-Ali's former public defender. The parties then continued the case by agreement until July 25, 2016, when Mr. Muhammad-Ali moved for a continuance to put together a mitigation packet. The case was continued several more times by agreement or court order until trial was set for Monday, February 27, 2017.

¶ 9 On the morning trial was set to begin, Mr. Shelton made an oral motion for a continuance. He explained to the court that he recently had food poisoning and was still recovering. He stated his voice was gone and that he was "not in a position to give [Mr. Muhammad-Ali] the jury trial that he deserves in this matter." The court responded," [w]ell, Mr. Shelton, we can pick [the jury] today, and then you'll have the rest of the day until tomorrow. And then we could [begin] the trial [tomorrow]. So all we have to do is get through picking today at least." Mr. Shelton again stated that he was "not in a position to give [Mr. Muhammad-Ali] [his] best jury trial selection or perform a trial tomorrow being that [he was] just coming down from a bad food poisoning." The court stated, "the problem is sometimes, you know, we do have to sacrifice" and later noted, "I understand, Mr. Shelton, your condition, so I'm trying to be as, you know, as reasonable as possible here to give you a break so that you can proceed to trial. But this is a [2013] case. It's an old case." The parties then proceeded with jury selection. The following day, the trial court was informed that Mr. Shelton was hospitalized and could not appear in court. The trial court continued the case until the next day, which was Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Mr. Shelton appeared then and "resubmit[ted]" his oral motion for a continuance, stating: " [W]hen we came in on Monday, I advised the Court that I had just been ill and was just getting over an illness and that I was not healthy. The Court-what the Court said is what you would do for us is to just allow me just to pick the jury that day and we will go forward and start the trial the next day. I had no choice. We went forward. *** Late Monday into Tuesday I became seriously ill where I had to go to the emergency room with extreme swelling to my face. Upon being seen by medical personnel, I was advised that they suspected that I had what is called angioedema and *** I was advised that that is something that can come on and present in a manner of swelling to the face or various body parts immediately after a serious illness or a bout with someone's immune system and while they can't be certain that's what it is, I was given medication to deal with the symptoms, but you can't prevent that. *** It may pop up over the next few days while your body still heals from the virus and the virus and/or the food poisoning that I was recovering from. That was yesterday. Today is Wednesday. I am still not 100 percent *** and to make Mr. [Muhammad]-Ali who is facing the penalties of a Class 2 felony *** go forward with his attorney in this condition *** I believe is [a] violation of [his] right to a fair trial."

The court initially responded by requesting the parties engage in a Rule 402 conference. Mr. Muhammad-Ali rejected the offer of three years in prison. The court then denied the motion for a continuance, stating: "Monday I know that I denied your motion for a continuance. I thought that you did a fin [e] job. You were prepared in your jury selection. You were able to get checked out and go to the doctor and get medication. I understand that you're not 100 percent, however, based on, you know, your ability to-you know, the record that you made, your ability as an attorney, how you're functioning in court, I don't see any reason that you cannot proceed to trial, so we are going to proceed to trial today."

¶ 10 The trial then commenced. The State presented the testimony of Chicago police officer David Brown and Ms. Smith. Officer Brown testified that he arrested Mr. Muhammad-Ali on November 22, 2013, after receiving an investigative alert that he was suspected of committing a crime.

¶ 11 Ms. Smith testified that she had known Mr. Muhammad-Ali since fourth grade. They began a romantic relationship in 2013 and dated for about two months. At around 7 a.m. on November 19, 2013, Ms. Smith, a first-grade teacher, was preparing to go to work. She testified that Mr. Muhammad-Ali, who had spent the night at her apartment, accused her of cheating on him with a coworker. He knocked coffee and juice out of her hands, pushed her against the wall, and choked her so she was" [b]arely" able to breathe. He eventually released her from the chokehold, "grabbed [her] arm and then *** pushed [her] into the living room." He then pinned her down on the couch and continued to ask who she was cheating on him with. She threatened to scream, and he released her and left the apartment. Ms. Smith testified that she called her sister, who came over to her apartment. Once her sister arrived, Ms. Smith called the police.

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