People v. Thompson

Decision Date03 December 2015
Docket NumberNo. 118151.,118151.
Citation43 N.E.3d 984
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellee, v. Dennis THOMPSON, Appellant.
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

Michael J. Pelletier, State Appellate Defender, Alan D. Goldberg and Patricia Mysza, Deputy Defenders, and Tomas G. Gonzalez, Assistant Appellate Defender, of the Office of the State Appellate Defender, of Chicago, for appellant.

Lisa Madigan, Attorney General, of Springfield, and Anita Alvarez, State's Attorney, of Chicago (Alan J. Spellberg, Michelle Katz, and Annette N. Collins, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the People.

OPINION

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

¶ 1 The issue in this appeal is whether a criminal defendant may raise an as-applied constitutional challenge to his mandatory natural life sentence for the first time on appeal from the circuit court of Cook County's dismissal of a petition seeking relief from a final judgment under section 2–1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2–1401 (West 2010) ). Answering that question in the negative, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court's dismissal of defendant's section 2–1401 petition. 2014 IL App (1st) 121729–U, ¶ 23, 2014 WL 2854802. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the appellate court's judgment.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 The underlying details of defendant's convictions and sentences have been previously recited by the appellate court. See People v. Thompson, No. 1–95–2040, 289 Ill.App.3d 1135, 239 Ill.Dec. 301, 713 N.E.2d 832 (1997) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23 ). Thus, we do not repeat those details and summarize only the facts relevant to our disposition here.

¶ 4 On March 26, 1994, defendant Dennis Thompson fatally shot his father, Dennis Thompson, Sr., and a woman who was inside his father's house, Don Renee Rouse. Defendant, who was 19 years old at the time, was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Defendant confessed to the shootings and directed the police to the murder weapon.

¶ 5 At defendant's bench trial, the evidence revealed that defendant, armed with a loaded firearm, drove to his father's house on the day of the shootings to discuss an earlier “domestic disturbance” between defendant's father and stepmother. After arriving at his father's house, defendant discovered his father drinking alcohol with Rouse, a woman defendant did not know. Defendant followed his father into the kitchen and an argument ensued. Ultimately, defendant shot his father when his father looked inside the refrigerator. Defendant next encountered Rouse, and shot her repeatedly. Defendant then left his father's house. Rouse, fatally wounded but still conscious, called police and identified defendant as the shooter. Defendant was apprehended and confessed to the shootings.

¶ 6 Defendant maintained that his actions were the result of a long history of physical and mental abuse committed by his father and, thus, constituted only second-degree murder. Defendant presented the testimony of several family members who uniformly described defendant's father as a violent and abusive person, especially when his father consumed alcohol. Following closing arguments, defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.

¶ 7 After the circuit court found defendant guilty, defendant waived a jury for the capital sentencing phase. The parties stipulated that defendant's birthday was April 1, 1974, and he was therefore 19 years old when he committed the murders. The court found defendant eligible for the death penalty but, after hearing evidence in aggravation and mitigation, declined to impose death and sentenced defendant to a term of natural life imprisonment under section 5–8–1(a)(1)(c)(ii) of the Unified Code of Corrections (730 ILCS 5/5–8–1(a)(1)(c)(ii) (West 1994)) (natural life sentence for a defendant “found guilty of murdering more than one victim”).

¶ 8 On direct appeal, the appellate court affirmed defendant's convictions and sentences. People v. Thompson, No. 1–95–2040, 289 Ill.App.3d 1135, 239 Ill.Dec. 301, 713 N.E.2d 832 (1997) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23 ). This court denied defendant's petition for leave to appeal. People v. Thompson, 175 Ill.2d 551, 228 Ill.Dec. 724, 689 N.E.2d 1145 (1997) (table).

¶ 9 In 1998, defendant filed his first petition under the Post–Conviction Hearing Act (725 ILCS 5/122–1 et seq. (West 1998)), alleging multiple claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The petition advanced to second-stage review but the trial court ultimately granted the State's motion to dismiss. The appellate court affirmed its dismissal. People v. Thompson, No. 1–99–2686, 321 Ill.App.3d 1053, 277 Ill.Dec. 898, 797 N.E.2d 245 (2001) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23 ).

¶ 10 In 2002, defendant filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, asserting a number of ineffective trial assistance claims. The district court denied defendant's petition. Thompson v. Briley, No. 04–3110 (N.D.Ill. Feb. 10, 2005). The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Thompson v. Battaglia, 458 F.3d 614 (7th Cir.2006).

¶ 11 In 2007, defendant sought leave to file a successive postconviction petition, challenging various aspects of his counsel's performance during his previous state court proceedings. The circuit court denied him leave to file his successive petition, and the appellate court affirmed. People v. Thompson, 383 Ill.App.3d 924, 322 Ill.Dec. 200, 890 N.E.2d 1119 (2008) (unpublished order under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23 ).

¶ 12 In 2009, defendant filed a pleading titled Article I Free Standing Motion to Vacate,” alleging that he was denied his right to capital-qualified counsel. The trial court construed defendant's pleading as a successive postconviction petition and denied the petition because it was filed without leave of court. Defendant did not appeal that denial, but he sought leave to file a successive postconviction petition. The trial court denied defendant's request. Although defendant filed an appeal, he subsequently withdrew that appeal.

¶ 13 On December 28, 2011, defendant filed a petition seeking relief from a final judgment under section 2–1401 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2–1401 (West 2010) ). That petition is the subject of the instant appeal.

¶ 14 In the section 2–1401 petition, defendant alleged that the circuit court “exceeded its jurisdiction” and violated his right to due process by failing to appoint capital-qualified attorneys, rendering his convictions void. Defendant also alleged a number of deficiencies on the part of his counsel during trial, direct appeal, and postconviction proceedings.

¶ 15 The State filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that defendant's petition was untimely filed 17 years after defendant's conviction, the substantive claims were not suitable for a section 2–1401 petition, and the claims in defendant's petition lacked merit. Following arguments, the circuit court granted the State's motion to dismiss.

¶ 16 On appeal, defendant abandoned all of his original claims in the section 2–1401 petition. Instead, defendant relied exclusively on Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012), a decision issued by the United States Supreme Court after the circuit court's dismissal of defendant's petition. In Miller, the Court held “ mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ Miller, ––– U.S. at ––––, 132 S.Ct. at 2460.

¶ 17 Citing Miller, defendant argued for the first time on appeal that his mandatory life sentence was void and could be challenged at any time because it violated the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution (U.S. Const., amend. VIII ) and the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 11 ). Defendant raised both a facial constitutional challenge and an as-applied constitutional challenge to the applicable sentencing statute. In relevant part, defendant asserted that the sentencing statute was unconstitutional as applied to him because he was 19 years old at the time of the shooting, had no criminal history, and impulsively committed the offense after years of abuse by his father.

¶ 18 The appellate court rejected defendant's contentions, concluding that defendant's as-applied constitutional challenge was not properly before the court when it was raised for the first time on appeal. The court determined that defendant's as-applied challenge did not constitute a challenge to a void judgment. The court explained that because “a Miller claim only challenges a sentence as voidable, the challenge may not be raised at any time irrespective of waiver.” 2014 IL App (1st) 121729–U, ¶ 18, 2014 WL 2854802. Accordingly, the court found that defendant's as-applied challenge was procedurally barred, and it affirmed the circuit court's dismissal of defendant's petition. 2014 IL App (1st) 121729–U, ¶ 23, 2014 WL 2854802.

¶ 19 We allowed defendant's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. July 1, 2013).

¶ 20 ANALYSIS

¶ 21 On appeal, defendant contends that the appellate court erroneously concluded that “it lacked jurisdiction to consider the merits of [defendant's] argument that his mandatory life sentence is unconstitutional and void.” Citing Miller, defendant argues that the sentencing statute that mandated a natural life sentence for his murder convictions is unconstitutional as applied to him under the eighth amendment because the sentencing statute did not allow the sentencing judge to consider his youth.1 Defendant acknowledges that Miller's holding is directly applicable only to minors under 18 years of age, but he contends that the logical underpinning of Miller, focused on the unique characteristics of youthful offenders and the...

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