People v. Sanders

Decision Date07 October 2010
Docket NumberNo. 109014.,109014.
Citation345 Ill.Dec. 509,238 Ill.2d 391,939 N.E.2d 352
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellee,v.Italo SANDERS, Appellant.
CourtIllinois Supreme Court


Randolph N. Stone, Herschella G. Conyers, of chicago, Kiersten Fletcher, Greg Cheyne, S. Neil Anderson, Hewot Shankute, Sharon Yecies, law students, for Appellant.Lisa Madigan, Atty. Gen. of Springfield, Anita Alvarez, State's Atty., of Chicago (Alan J. Spellberg, Kathryn A. Schierl, Annette Collins, Asst. State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People.

[345 Ill.Dec. 511 , 238 Ill.2d 393] OPINION

Justice GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

In 1994, defendant, Italo Sanders, was convicted in the circuit court of Cook County of first degree murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The appellate court affirmed his conviction. People v. Sanders, 284 Ill.App.3d 1123, 237 Ill.Dec. 237, 708 N.E.2d 1277 (1996) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). In November 2001, defendant filed a postconviction petition, which the circuit court dismissed. After the appellate court remanded for second-stage proceedings, the circuit court advanced the petition to third-stage proceedings. Following oral argument, the circuit court granted the State's motion to dismiss. The appellate court affirmed. 393 Ill.App.3d 152, 331 Ill.Dec. 866, 911 N.E.2d 1096.


Defendant was charged with the murder of John Pinkerton, which occurred on January 24, 1992. Pinkerton was shot in a stairwell of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, where he was walking with Alexander Robinson and seven-year-old Manuel Woods. Two months later, Pinkerton died from complications of his injuries. Prior to trial, defendant filed a motion in limine to preclude the State from introducing evidence related to street gangs. This evidence consisted of the testimony of Michael Stewart, who was Pinkerton's brother. At the hearing on defendant's motion, defense counsel told the court that two days after the shooting, Stewart saw defendant at the Robert Taylor Homes and asked defendant who had shot Pinkerton. Defendant allegedly replied that he could not tell Stewart, but that it was “BD business” and that Pinkerton had not been the intended target. Defendant asked Stewart if Pinkerton was dead and Stewart said no. Defendant smiled and walked away. The trial court denied defendant's motion, finding that the proposed evidence explained an otherwise inexplicable murder and that the probative value of the evidence outweighed any potential prejudice to defendant.

During jury selection, defense counsel submitted several questions to the trial court concerning possible gang contact or bias. The court refused to ask the questions, stating that an individual juror's opinion about gangs was not relevant and noting that the submitted questions were highly subjective and might serve to inflame the members of the venire.

At defendant's trial, then nine-year-old Manuel Woods testified that on January 24, 1992, he lived at the Robert Taylor Homes. His cousin, Michael Stewart, also lived there, on the same floor as Manuel. Around dinnertime, Pinkerton and Robinson

[345 Ill.Dec. 512 , 939 N.E.2d 355]

came over to Manuel's apartment. They stayed for a while and then left. Manuel went with them. They were going to Stewart's apartment to watch a basketball game. They started walking down the hallway. Manuel was holding Pinkerton's hand. As they approached the elevator and stairway, Manuel heard gunshots. Pinkerton was “jumping.” Manuel saw defendant at the top of the staircase. He was approximately 12 to 15 feet from Manuel. Defendant was holding a gun and shooting at Pinkerton, who pushed Manuel out of the way. Manuel ran to Stewart's apartment. Manuel stated that he went to the police station with his mother and identified defendant in a lineup. He had previously seen defendant more than once at the Robert Taylor Homes.

On three occasions, the jury was shown a photograph of the stairwell at Robert Taylor Homes where the shooting took place. The photo showed gang graffiti on the walls of the stairwell which read, “GDs Die, Bds live.”

Michael Stewart testified that a few days after the shooting, he saw defendant walking on the fifth floor of the Robert Taylor Homes. Stewart had seen defendant in the building several times, but did not know his name. Stewart told defendant that he had seen him in the stairwell the night Pinkerton was shot and he asked defendant who had shot Pinkerton. Defendant asked if Pinkerton was dead and, upon being told Pinkerton was alive, defendant said “it was BD business” and all he could tell Stewart was that Pinkerton was not the intended target. Stewart testified that the term “BD” meant Black Disciples, which was a street gang.

Sometime later, the police recovered a gun from defendant. A firearms expert testified that the bullets recovered from Pinkerton had the same class characteristics as the gun and could have been fired from the gun. However, the expert was unable to include or exclude the gun as the murder weapon.

Defendant called three witnesses to testify. His mother, sister, and girlfriend all testified that the three of them and defendant were in defendant's mother's apartment at the Robert Taylor Homes at the time of the shooting. They heard the shots and ran out to see what happened. Afterward, they went back into the mother's apartment and stayed there until defendant walked his girlfriend home about 10 p.m.

During closing arguments, the prosecutor referred to defendant's alleged gang affiliation and the alleged gang motive for the shooting by repeatedly referring to Stewart's testimony that defendant told him Pinkerton's shooting was “BD business.” The jury convicted defendant and the trial court sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

On direct appeal, the appellate court affirmed defendant's conviction and sentence. Before the appellate court, defendant argued, inter alia, that the trial court had erred in refusing to ask potential jurors questions during voir dire concerning potential bias against gangs. The appellate court rejected this argument, concluding that the trial court's questions were reasonably calculated to expose latent bias and prejudice. Sanders, 237 Ill.Dec. 237, 708 N.E.2d 1277 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).

On November 16, 2001, defendant filed a petition for postconviction relief, in which he alleged that the trial court erred in failing to voir dire potential jurors on the subject of gang bias. Defendant alleged that this failure, together with the State's reliance on gang-related evidence at trial, deprived him of his right to an impartial jury. In support, he cited this court's

[345 Ill.Dec. 513 , 939 N.E.2d 356]

decision in People v. Strain, 194 Ill.2d 467, 252 Ill.Dec. 65, 742 N.E.2d 315 (2000), in which the court held that, where gang evidence is to be integral to the defendant's trial, the trial court must ask potential jurors during voir dire about any biases they may have against gangs. The trial court dismissed the petition at the first stage as untimely. The appellate court reversed the dismissal and remanded the cause for second-stage proceedings. People v. Sanders, 341 Ill.App.3d 1111, 304 Ill.Dec. 662, 853 N.E.2d 451 (2003) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). On remand, the trial court found the petition was not untimely or barred by res judicata, based upon a 2002 appellate court decision, People v. Gardner, 331 Ill.App.3d 358, 264 Ill.Dec. 622, 771 N.E.2d 26 (2002), which found Strain to be applicable on collateral review. Thus, the trial court denied the State's motion to dismiss on those grounds. The court advanced the petition to third-stage proceedings to determine whether the gang evidence at defendant's trial was integral to the trial within the meaning of Strain. The court reviewed transcripts from the trial and heard oral argument. The court granted the State's motion to dismiss on the basis that the gang evidence could not have been considered integral to the trial.

On appeal, the appellate court held that Strain announced a new rule and thus could not be applied retroactively to defendant's case. The court rejected defendant's reliance on Gardner, finding that, although Strain was doctrinally consistent with prior law, it represented a clear break in placing a “stringent limitation upon the broad range of discretion traditionally afforded to the trial court.” 393 Ill.App.3d at 166, 331 Ill.Dec. 866, 911 N.E.2d 1096. The appellate court concluded that, because Strain was not applicable to defendant's case, his postconviction petition was barred by res judicata. In addition, the appellate court noted that, even if it agreed with the Gardner court's analysis, it would find that defendant's petition was barred as untimely. 393 Ill.App.3d at 167, 331 Ill.Dec. 866, 911 N.E.2d 1096.


Defendant raises three arguments in this appeal: (1) this court's decision in Strain did not announce a new constitutional rule of criminal procedure and therefore applies retroactively to defendant's case; (2) defendant's postconviction petition is not barred by res judicata and the late filing of his petition was not due to his culpable negligence; and (3) under the holding of Strain, the gang evidence was integral to defendant's trial and the trial court's failure to voir dire potential jurors on the issue of gang bias thus deprived him of a fair trial.

Defendant argues that this court's decision in Strain applies retroactively to his case.

A postconviction proceeding is a collateral attack on a prior conviction in which a defendant may challenge his conviction or sentence on the basis that his substantial constitutional rights were violated. People v. Beaman, 229 Ill.2d 56, 71, 321 Ill.Dec. 778, 890 N.E.2d 500 (2008). Postconviction claims are limited to those claims that were not and could not have been previously adjudicated on direct appeal. People v....

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