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Illinois Supreme Court Announces Guilty Plea Doesn’t Bar Postconviction Claim of Actual Innocence and Provides Framework for Review

In 2015, Demario D. Reed pleaded guilty to one count of armed violence in exchange for 15 years’ imprisonment and dismissal of numerous other charges related to his possession of crack cocaine and the presence of a nearby shotgun with his DNA on it. The trial court properly admonished Reed pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 402, confirmed the plea was knowing and voluntary, and sentenced Reed to the agreed upon terms.

Reed subsequently filed a petition under the Act asserting actual innocence. He argued it was undisputed that he did not reside at the home where the drugs and gun were found. No DNA linked him to the drugs. And he argued that the shotgun was found under a bed in a room separate from where he was arrested. Reed attached to his petition an affidavit from Davie Callaway.

Callaway had been present at the house when Reed was arrested. Callaway was later convicted of drug possession and ended up at the same prison as Reed. According to Callaway, he approached Reed at the prison and explained to him that the crack cocaine had belonged to Callaway, and he further swore that Reed knew nothing about the cocaine prior to his arrest. At a hearing on the petition, Callaway testified consistent with his affidavit.

The trial court denied Reed’s petition, finding that Callaway’s testimony was new – but not credible – evidence, specifically noting that Callaway had not come forward until after he had pleaded guilty and was in the same prison with the defendant. It further found that the evidence was not of such conclusive character as to have probably changed the result on retrial.

The appellate court affirmed but on different grounds. Relying on dicta from People v. Cannon, 263 N.E.2d 45 (Ill. 1970), the appellate court found that a defendant’s actual innocence claim cannot be entertained where he had pleaded guilty to the charge of which he now claimed to be innocent. The Illinois Supreme Court granted Reed leave to appeal.

The Supreme Court observed that in People v. Washington, 665 N.E.2d 1330 (Ill. 1996), it had held that a freestanding claim of actual innocence was cognizable under the Act. There, the Court had reasoned that the “[i]mprisonment of the innocent would also be so conscience shocking as to trigger operation of substantive due process.” Ignoring such a claim would also be fundamentally unfair to procedural due process. Id. But the Court had not previously decided this issue in the context of a guilty plea.

The appellate court had relied on Cannon. But the Cannon decision considered claims that were not argued on appeal and found the unargued claims “amount basically to an unsupported assertion that the accusation against [the defendant] was false....” The Cannon Court further observed: “Before his plea of guilty was accepted, the defendant, represented by appointed counsel, was fully and carefully admonished by the trial judge, and in the light of that admonition, the defendant’s present claim cannot be entertained.” But Cannon was not controlling in Reed’s case because the issue of actual innocence was neither briefed nor argued before the Cannon Court, and the issue was not essential to Cannon’s disposition. The statements were, therefore, obiter dicta and not binding precedent.

The Supreme Court further observed that defendants incur substantial benefits and burdens as a result of plea agreements. Benefits include favorable sentences and dismissals of other charges. Talarico v. Dunlap, 685 N.E.2d 325 (Ill. 1997).

But the consequential burdens are severe. People v. Evans, 673 N.E.2d 244 (Ill. 1996). “The plea obviates the prosecution’s burden of proof. It supplies both evidence and verdict, ending controversy.” People v. White, 953 N.E.2d 398 (Ill. 2011). By pleading guilty, a defendant waives his right to a trial by jury, his right to require the prosecution to establish his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and all other non-jurisdictional defects, including constitutional ones. People v. Burton, 703 N.E.2d 49 (Ill. 1998).

On that basis, the People argued that a guilty plea prohibits a defendant from later claiming actual innocence because the plea waived his right to a jury trial and to present defenses as well as any right to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But the Court rejected that argument.

In Washington, the Supreme Court determined that when newly discovered evidence shows that a convicted person is actually innocent, it triggers additional due process separate and apart from any challenges to the sufficiency of evidence or other constitutional error in the guilty plea proceedings. The Court observed “[t]he purpose of our criminal justice system is to seek justice.” United States v. Nobles, 422 U.S. 225 (1975). Justice includes punishing the guilty and ensuring the innocent do not suffer. Id. In a criminal prosecution, the prosecutor’s concern is not in winning the case but in assuring that justice is done. Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78 (1935).

The Court noted that plea agreements do not “weed out the innocent” or guarantee the factual validity of the conviction. Schmidt v. State, 909 N.W.2d 778 (Iowa 2018). Decisions to accept plea agreements may be based on factors that have nothing to do with a defendant’s actual guilt. Talarico. Innocent people plead guilty as shown by the fact that 18% of all exonerees and 11% of those exonerated by DNA had pleaded guilty. Peter A. Joy and Kevin C. McMunigal, Post-Conviction Relief After a Guilty Plea? 35 Crim. Just. 53 (Summer 2020). Additionally, the Supreme Court had a long-established preference for life and liberty as opposed to holding a defendant to his plea. People v. King, 116 N.E.2d 623 (Ill. 1953).

In light of the above considerations, the Court concluded that a defendant’s waiver of his right to challenge the People’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial does not prevent him from asserting under the Act his right to not be deprived of life and liberty given compelling evidence of actual innocence. The Court “refuse[d] to turn a blind eye to the manifest injustice and failure of our criminal justice system that would result from the continued incarceration of a demonstrably innocent person, even where a defendant pleads guilty.”

Having determined that a person who pleaded guilty may pursue under the Act a claim of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence, the Court next determined the applicable standard for reviewing such a claim. A guilty plea would leave a court in a position of weighing the new evidence against a knowing and voluntary admission of guilt. The record before the court would not have the People’s evidence that would’ve been presented at a trial but merely those facts admitted to support the plea.

The Court determined that a standard fair to all parties requires a defendant to provide new, material, noncumulative evidence that clearly and convincingly demonstrates that a trial would probably result in acquittal. The new evidence, along with the People’s opportunity for rebuttal, would be presented at a hearing.

In deciding the instant case, the Court reasoned that to be clear and convincing, the evidence must be credible. Since the trial court had determined at a hearing that the testimony of Callaway wasn’t credible, Reed failed to meet the newly announced standard.

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People v. Reed



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