MOUNT VERNON – St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly has conceded that prisoner Jamaul Harris deserves a hearing on his claim that he pleaded guilty on bad advice from lawyer Thomas Daley.
Fifth District appellate judges remanded the case to St. Clair County on Jan. 16, after Kelly decided not to oppose a hearing.
In an interview on Jan. 26, Kelly said he reached the decision after assistant state’s attorney Judy Dalan conferred with appellate prosecutors.
“Our duty is to the truth,” Kelly said. "If we find error at any stage, on our part or the part of any officer of the court, we have a duty to act affirmatively.
“That’s exactly what the assistant did.”
Agents of Metro-East Enforcement Group of Southwestern Illinois arrested Harris in 2008, after finding two packages of cannabis at UPS in Belleville.
The packages together weighed more than 5,000 grams, enough to qualify a cannabis distributor for a Class X felony with extra punishment.
Grand jurors indicted him on the Class X charge, but agents had connected him to only one package.
Eight days after the grand jury acted, state’s attorney Robert Haida filed criminal information charging that Harris intended to deliver more than 2,000 grams.
That reduced the charge to a Class One felony, but the Class X indictment remained pending because Haida didn’t dismiss it.
Harris posted bond but returned to jail twice on Class Four felony charges of possessing controlled substances.
At a hearing in 2011, Dalan told Circuit Judge Jan Fiss that Harris would plead guilty in all three cases.
On the distribution charge, she said he would plead guilty of a Class X felony.
She said he was caught in an undercover operation involving two packages.
Harris entered his plea, with Daley on hand.
Fiss wrote, “unlawful poss cont sub,” for all three charges, though the abbreviated words didn’t fit the Class X felony.
Fiss sentenced Harris for seven years on the Class X felony, two years on the first possession felony, and a year on the second, for 10 years in all.
Harris petitioned for relief in 2012, from Centralia Correctional Center.
He wrote that Daley coerced him to plead guilty, and that neither Dalan nor Daley made any effort to contact agents about the second package.
“Had counsel investigated he would have known that defendant Harris did not have 2nd UPS package in his possession and he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial," Harris wrote.
Chief Judge John Baricevic assigned the petition to former circuit judge Michael Cook, who denied it without holding a hearing.
“Petitioner failed to assert the gist of a constitutional violation,” Cook wrote. “Additionally, petitioner failed to show that defense counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that the petitioner was prejudiced.”
Harris appealed, and the Fifth District appointed appellate defender Yasaman Navai of Chicago to represent him.
Cook had resigned by then. He currently serves time for heroin possession.
Navai and Dalan soon concluded that Cook should have held a hearing, and Fifth District judges confirmed their conclusion.
Presiding Justice Judy Cates wrote, “The State confesses error and agrees with the defendant that the matter must be remanded for a second stage post conviction hearing with appointed counsel.
“Pleading guilty to a Class X felony meant that the defendant was admitting that he had possessed both packages of cannabis, the combined weight of which was more than 5,000 grams.”
She wrote that it was unclear from a transcript or from the remainder of the record whether he pleaded guilty to the indictment or the information.
She wrote that neither Dalan nor Fiss specified the amount.
“It is also unclear from the record whether plea counsel investigated the charges against the defendant,” she wrote.
Justices Melissa Chapman and Gene Schwarm concurred.
They amended Fiss’s judgment to reflect conviction for possession with intent to deliver rather than “unlawful poss con sub.”
Baricevic apparently expected the decision. A day before the Fifth District issued it, he appointed Preston Johnson of Belleville to represent Harris.
Baricevic set a status conference for April 2.