First District reverses order denying successive petition raising actual innocence claim

The appellant in People v. Galvan, 2019 IL App (1st) 170150, appealed the decision of the Circuit Court of Cook County to dismiss his third-stage successive post-conviction petition on the grounds that the trial court misapplied the standard and made improper findings in regard to the petitioner’s actual innocence claims and failed to address several arguments related to Galvan’s denial of due process claims. The Appellate Court of Illinois First Judicial District reviewed and ultimately reversed the judgment of the trial court, granted appellant’s third-stage successive postconviction petition, and remanded.

Following conviction at a jury trial for aggravated arson and first-degree murder, appellant, John Galvan was sentenced to natural life in prison without parole. Id. at ¶ 4. Galvan was 18 years old at the outset of his jury trial. Galvan’s arrest, prosecution and subsequent conviction were the byproduct of eyewitness testimony from an alleged witness, Michael Almendarez, obtained after a 10-to-12 hour interrogation by detectives James Hanrahan and Victor Switski. Id. at ¶ 5-6. Almendarez’s testimony was the subject of a denied pre-trial motion to suppress by Galvan’s counsel, which alleged the confession was forced by detectives and materially false. Id. at ¶ 5.

At trial, Galvan testified that his confession, signed following his initial interview with Detectives James Hanrahan and Victor Switski, was coerced by Detective Switski, following threats of the “death penalty,” an instruction to blame one of his co-defendants, threats of physical assault, and a promise of release. Id. at ¶12. During closing arguments at trial, defense counsel argued that shortly before the fire, there was a “young woman in the street threatening to burn down [the] building.” Id. at ¶ 13. Galvan was found guilty of all counts by the jury. Id. at ¶ 14.

On direct appeal, appellant’s conviction was upheld by the appellate court. Id. at ¶ 16. Galvan’s subsequent post-conviction petition, which alleged that the eyewitnesses were high on the night of the fire and would not have been able to identify appellant, was dismissed by the circuit court and upheld on appeal. Id. at ¶ 16. Between 2001 and 2004, appellant filed a pro se post-conviction petition (in 2001) and three supplemental petitions (in March 2003, February 2004, and October 2004), which included claims of actual innocence based on a newly executed affidavit by Partida, stating that appellant was not present the night of the arson and murder. Id. at ¶ 17.

At the third-stage evidentiary hearing, Partida testified to the contents of the affidavit, provided his eyewitness account of the fire, and detailed the attempts by detectives to get him to incriminate individuals (Galvan and codefendants) who he had not seen at the location of the fire. Partida also testified to factual innacuracies and exclusions in the two reports produced following his interviews with detectives. Id. at ¶ 19-24. A witness by the name of Mary Jane Borys testified that Lisa Velez, a tenant of the building which burned down in the arson, was affiliated with the Latin Kings gang and had expressed her intent to burn down the building with the victims inside. Id. at ¶ 26. Borys testified to multiple interviews with detectives where she informed them of statements made by Velez. Id. at ¶ 28.

Galvan provided further testimony regarding his coerced confession, detailing threats of violence, actual physical violence and the detective’s statement that he would “shoot [him] himself” if he did not confess. Id. at ¶ 36. Galvan also testified to an interaction with Assistant State’s Attorney (ASA) Joel Leighton, who asked him to corroborate the confession and left the room when he would not. Following an additional alleged beating by Detective Switski, ASA Leighton returned to the room and Galvan confirmed the accuracy of the confession. Id. at ¶ 39.

Almendarez testified to similar treatment by Detectives Switski and Hanrahan. Id. at ¶ 42. Almendarez testified that “Detective Switzki’s threats and abuse resulted in him signing a statement implicating [Galvan] and [codefendant] because he believed he could go him if he did so.” Id. at ¶ 43. Multiple other witnesses testified, in great detail, to signing false confessions after being interrogated and physically abused (in similar fashion to Galvan’s alleged abuse) by Detective Switski. Id. at ¶ 44-52. Switski denied any recollection of the events pertaining to the testimony of Galvan and all other witnesses and ASA Leighton denied seeing injuries on Galvan or the codefendants. Id. at ¶ 53-54. A fire and explosion expert, Dr. Russell Ogle, testified that there was no evidence that the fire started at the porch, as stated in the police report of the arson, nor could the fire have been started by a cigarette. Dr. Ogle testified that the most likely place for the fire to have begun was the stairwell. Id. at ¶ 55.

The trial court found Partida’s testimony to be “untruthful and not credible” based on prior affidavits; found that the outcome of the case would not have been different if the jury had heard Partida’s testimony (preventing a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel); found that any testimony regarding Velez’s expressed intent to burn down the building was improper hearsay and was not “newly discovered evidence”; and, concluded that Galvan failed to meet the necessary burden of proof to entitle him to post-conviction relief. Id. at ¶ 56-58. The trial court observed that all witnesses had, at one point, been convicted of murder (despite several of these convictions being overturned on appeal). Id.at ¶ 59. Galvan’s post-conviction petition was subsequently denied and became the subject of this appeal. Id. at ¶ 60.

The First District noted that “at a third-stage evidentiary hearing, the trial court acts as fact finder, determining witness credibility and weight to be given particular testimony and evidence” and should not re-decide the petitioner’s guilt.  Id. at ¶ 65, 67. The appellate court’s responsibility at this stage is to determine whether the circuit court’s denial of a post-conviction petition following an evidentiary hearing is manifestly erroneous, which is defined as “error which is clearly evident, plain, and indisputable.” Id. at ¶ 65.

As such, in their analysis of the appeal, the appellate court outlined the relevant questions in determining whether the trial court’s denial was manifestly erroneous: “(1) whether any of the officers who interrogated petitioner may have participated in systematic and methodical interrogation abuse and (2) whether those officers’ credibility at petitioner’s suppression hearing or at trial might have been impeached as a result.” Id. at ¶ 68. The appellate court found that the credibility findings made by the trial court, listed as justification for their denial, were not relevant to the issue of whether Switski’s credibility at the suppression hearing might have been impeached. In fact, the court found that “those officers’ credibility at petitioner’s suppression hearing or at trial might have been impeached as a result.” Id. at ¶ 74. Further, the appellate court found that “without petitioner’s confession, the State’s case was nonexistent.” Id. at ¶ 74.

Additionally, the appellate court determined there were “several other bases for which we believe the trial court could have granted petitioner’s successive postconviction petition following the third-stage evidentiary hearing,” most compelling of which was the newly discovered evidence regarding Velez’s motive. Id. at ¶ 75. The court found many of Galvan’s additional claims for postconviction relief compelling. As a result, the appellate court found the trial court’s conclusion manifestly erroneous and reversed and remanded with directions that Galvan receive a new suppression hearing and, if necessary, a new trial. Id. at ¶ 79.

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