Ill. appeals court upholds conviction, rejects alleged errors by trial judge

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An Illinois Appellate Court panel upheld last week the conviction of Oscar Flores on murder and attempted murder charges, brushing aside contentions by Flores’ attorney that his retrial was again marred by rulings of Cook County Circuit Judge Maura Slattery Boyle.

The unanimous opinion, authored by Margaret Stanton McBride, upheld the conviction and 80-year sentence of Oscar Flores, based on his conviction at his second trial of the 2007 murder of Victor Casillas and the attempted murder of Lionel Medina.

The 50-page opinion, joined by Appellate Court Judges Robert E. Gordon and Eileen O’Neill Burke, brought a statement of dismay from Flores’s trial attorney, Assistant Cook County Public Defender Julie Koehler, who represented Flores through both highly-contentious trials.

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“What’s the point of representing defendants at trial when the most egregious of errors, shocking errors, errors that I have never experienced the likes of before are just swept under the rug and deemed harmless,” Koehler asked in an email.

She added in a phone interview, “It’s really shaken me to my core… I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve never been punched in the gut like I have with this one.”

Flores and a codefendant, Robert Macias, were both arrested months after the shooting and charged with being the occupants of a car from which, prosecutors contended, Flores fired shots as Macias drove through an opposing gang neighborhood in the Little Village neighborhood of the South Side.

Flores and Macias were tried and convicted at separate trials presided over by Judge Slattery Boyle, after they gave incriminating statements during their interrogations.

The appellate court decision, dated March 29,  concluded that Flores’s rights were not violated when the prosecutor called Macias to the stand at Flores’s retrial and asked a series of substantive questions even though Macias refused to answer even with a grant of immunity for his testimony. The appellate court also found no fault with testimony that an unidentified caller had told Casillas’s brother that someone named “Lil Rowdy” was bragging of the shooting.

The opinion also refused to fault admission of a social media post that identified a photograph of Flores as “Lil Rowdy,” and on whose page someone had written, in gang terminology, that Casillas “rots in hell.”

The police had identified Flores as a suspect after Casillas’s brother told them that he had heard that “Lil Rowdy” was bragging of the shooting, and determined that “Lil Rowdy” was Flores by studying the social media caption and high school yearbooks.

A friend of Casillas who was with him at the time of the shooting had initially failed to identify Flores as the man he saw who fired the shots from the passing car. But two months later, the friend identified Flores in a lineup as the man who fired the shots from the passing car. By trial, the friend disavowed his identification and contended he had been pressured to name Flores by Casillas’s family.

Flores’s retrial was ordered after his original conviction was overturned by an appellate court panel in 2014; McBride, writing for a panel that included Judge Stuart Palmer and Jesse Reyes, found the police had improperly continued to interrogate Flores even after he said that he wished to speak to an attorney.  Flores’s “invocation of his right to remain silent was not scrupulously honored,” the panel ruled, as it sent the case back for retrial that would not rely on the statements that Flores gave.

In addition, the first panel opined, as it sent the case back for retrial, that the captions on the social media page of “Lil Rowdy” “should not be admitted at trial,” since the state could not show who had authored the captions. But in the ruling to uphold the retrial conviction, the court concluded that Koehler had “opened the door” to questions that otherwise otherwise would have been improper.

The prosecution had no physical evidence linking Flores to the shootings. Retrying the case without the challenged confession, the key evidence included the statement of the friend who had recanted, and the word that “Lil Rowdy” was bragging of the shooting.

Assistant State’s Attorney Eric Leafblad called to the stand Macias, though his attorney said her client would not testify. Slattery Boyle permitted the prosecutor to ask Macias, over objection, a series of questions about the murder and his association with Flores, even as Macias sat mute: Had he given a statement to police; had he been convicted of the murder; had he been the driver of the vehicle; if he were in a gang; and if he knew Flores.

The appellate court distinguished other cases in which such questioning has been ruled inadmissible finding the prosecutor neither asked questions about the crime nor about Flores’s alleged role. Further, the panel noted, Slattery Boyle told the jurors during her final instructions to disregard the questioning of Macias.

The appellate panel wrote: “We do not condone the prosecution’s strategy in asking these questions, but even if there was error, that error did not prejudice defendant and was harmless.”

The panel also rejected the defense contention that Slattery Boyle had improperly permitted hearsay testimony that Casillas’s brother had been told that Lil Rowdy was bragging about the shooting and at the high school. Normally, an out of court statement is inadmissible because the defense had no ability to question the source of that information about its truthfulness.

But the appellate court ruled that the statement was admissible to explain what prompted both Casillas’s brother and later detectives to focus the investigation on Flores. “The court concluded the testimony was not offered for its truth, but to show the course of the police investigation leading to defendant’s arrest and was not hearsay,” the opinion reads.

Slattery Boyle, a Bridgeport native and neighbor of the family of Richard J. Daley, ran and won a seat on the Cook County circuit court in 2000 with the support of John Daley. She had only been out of law school for six years — as a result, she had run without the support of the local bar associations.

As she ran for retention last year, Injustice Watch found she had been overturned  34 times in recent years, a rate far higher than other judges. Since winning retention in November, she was reassigned from criminal courts to the law division.