Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed January 22, 2016




People v. Sanders, 2016 IL 118123


Appellate citation: 2014 IL App (1st) 111783


            CHIEF JUSTICE GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

            Justices Freeman, Thomas, Kilbride, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.


            In April 1992, Jonas Cooks was dragged away from a Chicago home where there had been a party and shot to death in an abandoned building. A Cook County jury convicted McClain Sanders, the petitioner here, of murder and aggravated kidnapping, and he received concurrent terms of 60 and 15 years. Three other individuals were tried separately and also convicted.

            At Sanders’ trial, Gary Bingham testified that he was in partnership selling cocaine with Sanders and another man named Aaron May, and that the three of them had gone to the home, seeking a refund from the victim for selling underweight cocaine. Bingham testified that the three took the victim to an abandoned building, where Sanders shot him twice. When he gave this testimony, Bingham had already been convicted in connection with the murder. Sanders testified in his own defense, presenting an alibi involving his girlfriend. After his conviction, he took a direct appeal, and the appellate court affirmed. He began filing postconviction petitions in 1997, and the first was summarily dismissed, with the appellate court affirming. He filed another postconviction petition in 1999, complaining of the use of allegedly perjured testimony from Bingham. Meanwhile, May, who had been convicted separately, had initiated proceedings making similar allegations, and a joint evidentiary hearing was held in 2007, with Bingham testifying in recantation of his earlier implication of both Sanders and May, and stating that he acted alone. The trial judge at that joint evidentiary hearing was the same judge who presided over the successive postconviction proceedings in this case. He found Bingham’s testimony at that hearing to be “very incredible.”

            In 2010, Sanders filed the successive postconviction petition which is at issue here, alleging newly discovered evidence of actual innocence. He presented affidavits of individuals who said they had heard Bingham take full responsibility for the offense, and he attached transcripts of the 2007 evidentiary hearing. Despite the absence of any motion for leave to file a successive petition as required by statute, the circuit court judge allowed the petition to be filed, and he advanced it to the second stage before dismissing it. The appellate court affirmed, and Sanders appealed to the supreme court.

            Reasoning differently than the appellate court, the supreme court nevertheless affirmed it. Although no request for leave to file the instant petition had initially been made, the supreme court said that the trial court still had the authority to consider whether the petition should be docketed for second-stage proceedings, as was done here. The second stage is not the point at which credibility determinations are involved (this is for the third stage), and, in any event, the trial judge’s opinion as to Bingham’s credibility at May’s 2007 evidentiary hearing should not be considered on review of this matter. Nevertheless, the result is the same. At the second stage, Sanders had the burden of making a substantial showing of a claim of actual innocence, and he failed to carry this burden. The last postconviction petition was properly dismissed at the second stage.