SPRINGFIELD — People who plead guilty to crimes are not automatically precluded from later asserting claims of innocence, the state's highest court ruled on Thursday.
The Illinois Supreme Court’s unanimous decision creates a new precedent for state courts. This is the first time the high court answered the question of whether individuals who pleaded guilty can still successfully claim innocence.
Under Illinois law, individuals convicted of crimes can petition the court and successfully assert a claim of innocence if they can establish that their rights were violated during the court proceedings that resulted in their conviction.
The court’s 22-page opinion holds that the guilty plea of the defendant – in this case, Demario Reed – “does not prevent him from asserting his right to not be deprived of life and liberty given compelling evidence of actual innocence under the (law).”
The court’s decision also establishes a new standard that individuals who pleaded guilty and later claim innocence must meet in order for their petition to succeed.
The justices ruled that those individuals can prevail on innocence claims if they can provide “new, material, noncumulative evidence that clearly and convincingly demonstrates that a trial would probably result in acquittal,” the court’s opinion states.
In the case before the court, Reed pleaded guilty in 2015 to armed violence after he was arrested at a Macon County home for possessing crack cocaine and a sawed-off shotgun, which were found in the home. Following his guilty plea, Reed submitted a post-conviction petition asserting his innocence, based on a sworn affidavit from Davie Callaway, who was also at the home when Reed was arrested.
Calloway claimed in the affidavit that the cocaine found in the home belonged to him, and not Reed.
In January 2017, a Macon County judge dismissed Reed’s post-conviction petition, finding that Calloway’s testimony was not convincing.
Reed appealed to the 4th District Appellate Court, which is one level below the Illinois Supreme Court.
The appellate court agreed with the Macon County judge to dismiss the petition in a 2019 ruling that relied heavily on a 1970 Illinois Supreme Court decision, People v. Cannon.
In the Cannon case, the court rejected the defendant’s postconviction claim of actual innocence because, the 1970 Illinois Supreme Court opinion states, “(b)efore his plea of guilty was accepted, the defendant, represented by appointed counsel, was fully and carefully admonished by the trial judge.”
The appellate court concluded that it must follow the legal guidance in the Cannon case, “until the supreme court says otherwise.”
Illinois Supreme Court justices clarified in Thursday’s opinion that the appellate court’s reliance on the Cannon case law was misplaced, as the 50-year-old opinion served only as “dicta,” or a nonbinding legal opinion, and “does not control this case.”
“This court refuses 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,” the court’s opinion states. “Accordingly, we find defendants who plead guilty may assert an actual innocence claim under the (law).”
While the justices found that Reed was allowed to claim innocence despite his guilty plea, they did not accept Reed’s argument that Callaway’s affidavit would alter the outcome of a trial.
“We cannot say it was unreasonable for the court to question the truthfulness of Callaway, where he came forward only after being imprisoned and discussing the case with (Reed),” the opinion states.
The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court’s decision to dismiss Reed’s post-conviction petition, although the two courts offered different reasons for the dismissal.
A spokesperson for Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which represented the state in this case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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