Appellate Court considers whether a clemency decision is reviewable and subject to constitutional challenge

The appellant in People v. Ramsey, 2019 IL App (3d) 160759, appealed the trial court’s order dismissing his post-conviction petition at the second stage of post-conviction proceedings, on grounds that the court erred by ruling, among other things, that an executive commutation could not be judicially reviewed. Ultimately, Third District affirmed.

Daniel Ramsey was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, one count of aggravated criminal sexual assault, one count of home invasion, and one count of residential burglary. At the time Ramsey committed the crimes, he was 18 years old. Ramsey initially received the death penalty. Id. at ¶ 4. However, Ramsey’s convictions were reversed by the supreme court, but Ramsey once again received another death penalty sentence. Ramsey’s sentences were affirmed by the supreme court on appeal. Id. at ¶ 6.

In February 2011, Ramsey filed a pro se post-conviction petition. While that petition was pending, in March 2011, Illinois abolished the death penalty, leading Governor Pat Quinn to commute Ramsey’s death sentence to natural life in prison without the possibility of parole. Id. at ¶ 7. Following the commutation of his sentence, Ramsey amended his post-conviction petition and argued, among other things, that the commutation of his sentence violated his constitutional rights under the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution and the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution in that the new sentence failed to consider his age and mitigating factors. Id. at ¶ 8.

The petition was advanced to the second stage of post-conviction proceedings, during which the State filed a motion to dismiss. The circuit court granted the State’s motion, ruling that Governor Quinn’s commutation order was not subject to judicial review. Id. at ¶ 9. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Ramsey argued that the circuit court erred in dismissing his post-conviction petition because his commuted sentence did not take into consideration his youth and other mitigating factors. Id. at ¶ 12. The appellate court’s review was conducted de novo.

In its review, the appellate court acknowledged the breadth of the clemency powers granted to the governor, citing holdings by the supreme court in Madigan v. Snyder, 208 Ill. 2d 457, 474 (2004) that “the Governor’s clemency powers granted by the constitution cannot be controlled either by the courts or the legislature” and in People v. Mata, 217 Ill. 2d 535, 541 (2005), where the court held “[t]he clemency power granted by the Illinois Constitution is not subject to control by the courts or the legislature, but can be controlled only by the Governor’s conscience and sense of public duty.” Id. at ¶ 15.

However, the court also determined that, in accordance with holdings in Mata related to due process issues, “executive clemency is not immune from judicial review if it violates the Constitution.” Id. at ¶ 20. As such, the court disagreed with the State’s argument that the appellate court’s review was precluded by the clemency powers granted to the Governor and proceeded to address whether appellant Ramsey’s due process rights were violated with the imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Id. at ¶ 21.

On the eighth amendment claim, the court determined that the eighth amendment claim brought by Ramsey failed under Miller, as Ramsey was 18 years old at the time he committed the crimes for which he was sentenced, and Miller only applies to juveniles under the age of 18. Id. at ¶ 22.

On the proportionate penalties clause claim, the court found “nothing in the record to indicate that Governor Quinn’s executively imposed sentence shocks the moral sense of the community, despite Ramsey’s protestations to the contrary.” Id.at ¶ 23. Specifically, on the crimes themselves, the court stated that the circumstances of the acts for which Ramsey was charged could not warrant leniency, which could justify a proportionality claim.

Ultimately, the Appellate Court of Illinois Third District ruled that while the exercise of clemency by the Governor is not wholly unfettered, the commuted death penalty sentence, resulting in a sentence of life without parole for appellant Ramsey, did not violate either the state of United States Constitution. As such, the Appellate Court of Illinois Third District affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court of Hancock County.

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