By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender
Prior to his jury trial on a charge of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, defendant Ira Mullins filed a motion in limine seeking to bar admission of his prior felony narcotics convictions for purposes of impeachment. The trial court withheld ruling until defendant testified. After his conviction, defendant appealed, and argued that the trial court abused its discretion in both delaying its ruling on his motion in limine and in allowing the admission of a prior conviction for impeachment purposes. The Appellate Court affirmed.
The Supreme Court then vacated the First District’s original order, and directed the Appellate Court to reconsider its decision in light of People v. Patrick,
233 Ill.2d 62 (2009), in which case it was held that, if a ruling is requested before trial on whether defendant’s prior convictions can be used to impeach his testimony, the court should make a ruling at that time, except in those rare instances where it lacks enough information to do so.
The Appellate Court then reversed, holding that the trial court abused its discretion, and that the error substantially prejudiced the defendant.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Freeman and joined by Justice Burke, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court.
The majority readily concluded that the trial court correctly determined that the prior conviction was admissible for impeachment purposes. As
the State had acknowledged that the trial court erred by delaying its decision on whether to admit defendant’s prior convictions until the time for his testimony, the only remaining question was how to determine whether the error was harmless or reversible. The Court observed that the State had contended that the Appellate Court misconstrued Patrick and failed to conduct an appropriate harmless-error analysis, but had instead improperly treated the trial court’s error as a de facto structural error which affected the integrity of the trial and required automatic reversal of defendant’s conviction without any showing of prejudice. Conversely, the defendant viewed Patrick as establishing that the proper analysis is whether the trial court’s error in delaying the ruling on defendant’s motion in limine was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
To resolve this question, the Court turned to its recent analysis of Patrick in People v. Averett, 237 Ill.2d 1 (2010). In Averett, the Court had discussed the defendant’s constitutional right to testify and how the trial court’s decision on the motion in limine impacts the defendant’s decision and thus his entire trial strategy. Deferring this decision until defendant testifies is an abuse of discretion, and thus was treated in Patrick as a question of harmless-error. Because harmless error analysis was used, the error could not have been considered a structural error, and therefore automatic reversal would be inappropriate. The appropriate standard of review, therefore, was whether the trial court’s error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. In Mullins, the majority determined that the error was harmless because, even were the trial court’s error removed, a retrial would end with the same result.
There were two special concurrences, one by Chief Justice Kilbride, and one authored by Justice Garman and joined by Justices Thomas, Karmeier and Theis. Both special concurrences agreed with the result reached by the majority, but expressed different views as to the import and meaning of Patrick. Justice Garman expressed the view that “the more important it is to the defense theory of the case to have the defendant testify, the more harm is done by improperly deferring the ruling,” while the Chief Justice believes that “the focus of our harmless-error inquiry under Patrick is not on the defendant’s need to testify but, rather, on the defendant’s ability to make an informed decision about whether to testify.”