Ill. inmate says he has been locked up for decades by impostor, not real judge

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Responding to the sound of gunshots, two Chicago police officers said they saw Earl Kelly, 32, run into a city park on Chicago’s Southwest Side and toss a gun on a summer night in 1992.

Kelly was convicted in 1995 of armed violence and, as a habitual offender, sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

More than two decades later, Kelly—whose lengthy sentence was based on two prior armed robbery convictions—is seeking to overturn the conviction, contending that since Judge Francis X. Golniewicz III did not legally win his seat on the bench, his rulings were invalid.

Illinois Dept. of Corrections/Chicago Sun-Times

Earl Kelly (left) and former judge Francis X. Golniewicz III

The Illinois Courts Commission removed Golniewicz from the bench in 2004, finding that he had won his judicial seat starting in 1994 by falsely claiming he lived in Cook County’s 10th judicial subcircuit.

Kelly has maintained since 2007 that he was wrongly convicted because Golniewicz was improperly presiding over his trial. In 2012 the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Kelly’s claim that could have merit. Without ruling on the matter, a three-judge panel of the court remarked on the state’s contention that a ruling in Kelly’s favor could open a Pandora’s Box, inviting challenges by many others convicted by Golniewicz.

“While the ‘chaos’ the State predicts should certainly be avoided if at all possible, a question nevertheless remains,” the majority opinion, authored by Appellate Judge Marcus R. Salone and joined by Appellate Judge John O. Steele, states. “Which is more drastic, granting petitioner’s requested relief, with the possibility that a number of other rulings by Golniewicz might be voided as well, or serving a sentence of natural life in prison which was imposed by a void judge?”

The appellate court sent the case back to Cook County Circuit court, where it remains pending before Judge Geary W. Kull.

Stephen B. Bright, a Yale law professor, said that a claim like Kelly’s certainly has merit, and in a similar situation he too would raise the issue of the judge’s legitimacy. But, he said, courts tend to avoid decisions with broad ramifications. When judges are defrocked of their powers, he said, “generally it doesn’t undermine everything they did as a judge.”

Bright noted that Kelly’s case was different than most, given that the issue with Golniewicz was whether he ever should have been seated as a judge.

“The question is, is the judge just plain illegitimate.” Bright said. “I can’t think of a case off the top of my head…where you have a judge who is not legitimate like that.”

The closest analogy Bright could make involved Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Maloney, who was convicted of charges related to accepting bribes in a handful of criminal cases in the 1980s. Maloney’s wrongdoing did not impact other cases that did not involve proof of corruption.

Injustice Watch learned of Kelly’s claim when he cited his pending case in a letter he wrote from an Illinois prison.

His attorney, Steven W. Becker, said it “doesn’t make any sense” for Kelly, who already has served more than two decades in prison, to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

A spokesman for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.

The Illinois Courts Commission, the agency responsible for disciplining errant judges, removed Golniewicz from the bench after finding that he duped voters and state officials by falsely claiming he lived at his parents’ home in the 10th subcircuit, rather than in the west suburban home where he actually lived with his wife and children, 13 miles away.

The Courts Commission also found Golniewicz’s actions on the bench demeaned the integrity of the office based on his behavior in three instances. In one, Golniewicz was physically disappointed with a jury verdict, then tore up jury participation certificates and said aloud that the jurors did not deserve them. In another, he told a defendant who he found not guilty to “be careful. Be real f—— careful.” In a third instance, Golniewicz told an African American defendant during an exchange “When I’m talking to you, boy, you look at me.”

Kelly’s attorney, Becker, likened the issue of Golniewicz presiding on the bench to the cases heard by attorney Rhonda Crawford in 2016. Crawford, who had won a judicial primary but had not yet been sworn in as a judge, was working as a law clerk when Circuit Judge Valarie Turner allowed her to put on robes and preside over at least three traffic cases at the Markham courthouse in Cook County.

After Crawford’s actions were uncovered, the cases were dismissed by the state.

“No one would pretend that the parties whose cases were ruled on by this imposter in a robe were tried in front of a properly constituted tribunal,” Becker wrote in the pending petition on behalf of Kelly. “The situation is no different with Golniewicz. Kelly had the constitutional right to be tried by ‘a real judge,’ and Golniewicz was not a real judge.”