Cook reversed at Fifth District in murder case; Justices say 'hand scribbled order' lacked reason and care

By The Madison County Record | Nov 25, 2014

Former St. Clair County judge Michael Cook improperly denied a petition of killer Tiffany Hall to withdraw her guilty plea, Fifth District appellate judges ruled on Nov. 21.

Former St. Clair County judge Michael Cook improperly denied a petition of killer Tiffany Hall to withdraw her guilty plea, Fifth District appellate judges ruled on Nov. 21.

They reversed an order Cook signed on Jan. 2, 2013, denying Hall’s claim that lawyer James Gomric provided ineffective assistance.

Gomric advised Hall to plead guilty before he received a report on her fitness to stand trial.

The Fifth District remanded the case to St. Clair County, but Cook won’t hear it.

He resigned in May 2013, upon his arrest for heroin possession.

The order he signed in Hall’s case raises questions regarding his fitness at the time.

Fifth District judges described it as a “two sentence, hand scribbled order,” indicating a lack of reasoning and a lack of care.

Cook wrote that Hall failed to show "constitutional depracation," which the judges interpreted as "deprecation" but which might have meant "deprivation."

He attached a loop like an “e” to the word petition.

In his direction for the clerk to notify Hall of her appeal rights, only the context would allow a reader to identify the word, "rights," which Cook spelled as "rytes."

Hall killed friend Jemilla Tunstall, her three children, and her unborn child in 2006.

State’s attorney Robert Haida filed four first degree murder charges and a charge of homicide of an unborn child. He filed notice of intent to seek a death penalty.

In 2008, Hall agreed to plead guilty and Haida agreed to withdraw the death penalty notice.

At a hearing, former judge Milton Wharton asked Hall about her treatment satisfaction with her representation. She voiced no concerns.

Wharton asked Gomric if anything created a doubt in his mind as to her fitness to plead guilty.

Gomric said no. He said psychologist Daniel Cuneo conducted examinations as to both sanity and fitness.

Gomric said independent experts confirmed that, “she was then and is now and has been throughout this process both fit and sane.”

Wharton sentenced her to four concurrent life sentences, and 60 years for the unborn child.

Two days later, psychologist Robert Heilbronner filed a report of a mental history that began when Hall was a young child and included several psychiatric hospitalizations.

He wrote that her problems played an important role in understanding her mental status around the time she committed the crimes.

He wrote that his report might be used in mitigation should a death penalty be considered.

Hall moved to withdraw her plea three months later, and Wharton dismissed the motion.

In 2012, Hall filed a petition for relief due to ineffective assistance and mental incompetency.

“Gomric failed to investigate my mental health condition properly and actually didn’t receive documentation of my psychiatric evaluation until two days after my guilty plea was entered,” she wrote.

Cook denied her petition, finding that, “the record refutes the allegations.”

She appealed, and deputy appellate defender Ellen Curry took her case.

Curry argued that Heilbronner’s report might have supported an insanity defense at trial, which might have led to a finding of not guilty.

State’s attorney Brendan Kelly argued that Hall told Wharton she was happy with Gomric, but that didn’t impress Fifth District judges.

Justice Stephen Spomer wrote, “Implicit in this argument is the idea that a defendant should and will always know when he or she is receiving ineffective assistance of counsel, and will vocalize that to the court. We reject this idea.”

“Were it as simple for a defendant to manage his or her own case, and to navigate that case through the criminal justice system, as the state so glibly maintains it is, there would be no need for criminal defense attorneys, or for the constitutional protections that guarantee defendants access to those attorneys,” Spomer wrote.

He wrote that Cuneo’s report was silent on Hall’s sanity at the time of the murders, “contrary to the inaccurate assertions of Gomric and of the state.”

He wrote that the question at this juncture isn’t her fitness to plead guilty but the extent to which she has presented a claim of ineffective assistance.

“At this point, it is arguable that plea counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that the defendant was prejudiced thereby,” he wrote.

Justices Melissa Chapman and Gene Schwarm concurred.

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