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Illinois Supreme Court: Failing to Stipulate Felon Status Allowing Jury to Hear About Murder Conviction Constitutes IAC

The Supreme Court of the State of Illinois reversed a defendant’s conviction because his attorney failed to stipulate his felon status at trial, and the jury was likely prejudiced by knowing his previous conviction was for murder.

Leslie Moore was pulled over in Joliet, Illinois, because he failed to signal his intent to turn at least 100 feet prior to turning. During the traffic stop, a gun was located in the center console of his vehicle. Because of a 1990 murder conviction, he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Three witnesses were heard from at trial. Moore’s friend Sherry Walls testified that he was helping her move and that she had borrowed Moore’s car earlier that day. She used his car to transport her two pistols, for which she demonstrated legal proof of ownership. She testified that she placed one of the pistols in the center console and did not realize until after Moore had left that she had forgotten to remove it from the vehicle.

Will County Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Hannon testified that he observed Moore “dip” his right hand or shoulder to the center console during the traffic stop, but because of the dashcam’s poor quality, this action was imperceptible on the video. He also claimed Moore seemed nervous, so he asked Moore to exit the vehicle. Upon asking why Moore was so nervous, he stated that Moore admitted to having a loaded firearm in the center console. This statement could not be verified because the microphone on the dashcam was allegedly inoperable. Hannon testified that the backup officer, Deputy Ambrosini, arrived as Hannon cuffed Moore and that Hannon then recovered the gun from the vehicle. However, review of the dashcam showed that, contrary to his testimony, Ambrosini recovered the gun.

Moore testified that he was not nervous or sweating during the 1:15 a.m. traffic stop. He testified that Hannon asked him to step out of the vehicle, asked him why he was in Joliet, and whether he had any weapons or drugs. He said Hannon cuffed him claiming it was “for safety reasons.” When officers recovered the gun during the search of the vehicle, he testified he did not know it was there.

Several times during trial, it was reiterated to the jury that Moore had previously been convicted of murder to prove that he was in fact a felon when he possessed the gun. Moore was convicted by the jury.

On appeal, he claims his lawyer provided ineffective assistance by not stipulating to the fact that Moore was a felon. Instead, counsel, through a misunderstanding of the law, allowed the court to notify the jury several times that Moore had been convicted of murder. He claims this tainted the jury, causing undue bias. His conviction was upheld by the appellate court, but was granted leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Ineffective assistance claims must prove that (1) counsel’s performance was deficient, and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defendant. Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668 (1984). Illinois adopted this standard in People v. Domagala, 987 N.E.2d 767 (Ill. 1984). Defendant bears the burden of proving both prongs. People v. Peterson, 106 N.E.3d. 944 (Ill. 2017).

The U.S. Supreme Court held that when the prosecution only needs to establish the defendant’s felon status introducing the name and nature of the prior conviction has no probative value and presents a substantial risk of unfair prejudice, and thus they should generally be excluded. Old Chief v. United States, 519 US 172 (1997). The Old Chief Court explained that a stipulation or admission could establish the defendant’s felon status, and such a method is less prejudicial to the defendant. The Illinois Supreme Court adopted the ruling in Old Chief in People v. Walker, 812 N.E.2d 339 (Ill. 2004), agreeing with the U.S. Supreme Court that where the defendant’s felon status is an element of the charged crime revealing the nature of the prior conviction creates a risk of unfair prejudice.

In light of the settled case law, the Court noted that “deficient performance in this case is not seriously disputed.” The Court concluded that trial counsel’s failure to stipulate to Moore’s felon status was objectively unreasonable under the first prong of Strickland

Regarding prejudice, the Court ruled that the conviction likely turned on the jury’s analysis of the credibility of the witnesses only — which was conflicting as to whether Moore knew the gun was in the vehicle — because there was no objective evidence (such as Moore’s fingerprints on the gun) showing that Moore had knowledge of the gun. Reiterating multiple times that his prior conviction was for murder likely allowed the jury to find him guilty “on a ground different from proof specific to the offense charged” or that his possession of a gun after conviction of a violent crime “called for a preventative conviction” in this case, the Court stated, quoting Old Chief.

Thus, the Court concluded Moore’s counsel provided ineffective assistance, and the deficient performance likely prejudiced the jury against him, satisfying Strickland.

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Related legal case

People v. Moore



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