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Perez-Gonzalez v. Lashbrook

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 17, 2018

Raul Perez-Gonzalez, Petitioner-Appellant,
Jacqueline Lashbrook, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued June 1, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15 C 4210 - John Z. Lee, Judge.

          Before Ripple, Kanne, and Brennan, Circuit Judges.

          Brennan, Circuit Judge.

         Raul Perez-Gonzalez pleaded guilty to first degree murder for his role in a gang-related killing. His plea agreement called for a thirty-five year prison sentence and required him to testify truthfully in any prosecution against his co-defendants. More than one year after agreeing to these terms and pleading guilty, as the trial of a co-defendant approached, Perez-Gonzalez had second thoughts and declined to testify. For this refusal, he was convicted of contempt of court, resulting in an additional ten-year sentence.

         After exhausting his state court remedies, Perez-Gonzalez petitioned for habeas corpus asserting the State breached the plea agreement by requesting the contempt sanction, and that the Illinois Appellate Court unreasonably concluded to the contrary. The district court denied his habeas petition, but granted his request for a certificate of appealability. Perez-Gonzalez contends the plea agreement immunized him from contempt proceedings. Although he presents a reasonable interpretation of the plea agreement, he has not proved that the state appellate court's alternative interpretation was unreasonable, so we affirm the judgment of the district court.

         I. Background

         Raul Perez-Gonzalez made three critical decisions. The first was on a January 2009 evening in Elgin, Illinois. What began as posturing among rival street gangs in a fast food parking lot intensified into a car chase and the senseless murder of Paola Rodriguez, who was shot as she drove the girlfriend of a gang member away from the confrontation. The next day Perez-Gonzalez confessed to driving the car from which the fatal shots were fired. He also informed police that his passengers included Manith Vilayhong, who ordered the shooting, and Tony Rosalez, who shot the gun. All three men were charged with first-degree murder.

         A. The Plea Agreement

         Perez-Gonzalez's second pivotal decision was agreeing to cooperate in the prosecution of his co-defendants. On August 27, 2010, the State presented Perez-Gonzalez with a letter containing a plea offer. In exchange for pleading guilty to first-degree murder while in possession of a firearm, he would receive a thirty-five year sentence: twenty years for first degree murder, plus a fifteen year add-on for possession of a firearm. The plea offer also included a conditional reduction of his sentence by fifteen years if he cooperated "in all aspects" with the prosecution of his co-defendants, including testifying truthfully at their trials. Once Perez-Gonzalez's cooperation was "successfully completed," the State promised to amend his charge to omit reference to a firearm and to vacate the fifteen year add-on, reducing his sentence to twenty years. The letter emphasized that:

Any deviation from that truthful [testimony] will be grounds for the [State]-at [its] sole discretion-to withdraw its agreement to delete reference to a firearm as well as to withdraw its agreement to vacate the 15-year add-on. In such event, the defendant would then be required to serve the terms of the initial agreement, which would be 35 years [in the Illinois Department of Corrections], plus [mandatory supervised release] as well as fees.

         At the plea hearing, the parties relayed the agreement's terms to the trial court. After describing the State's offer letter to the trial court, the State's attorney remarked, "I think that's all the terms." In response, counsel for Perez-Gonzalez acknowledged the State presented an accurate description of the agreed upon terms. The trial court accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Perez-Gonzalez to thirty-five years.

         B. Contempt of Court Proceedings

         More than one year after Perez-Gonzalez pleaded guilty, pretrial proceedings began against his co-defendant Rosalez. When called to testify against Rosalez, Perez-Gonzalez made his third pivotal decision: he refused to answer any questions regarding the case, even spurning the trial court's order to answer. Perez-Gonzalez never testified untruthfully; he refused to testify at all. Rosalez was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to thirty-five years, but the allegation that Rosalez discharged the firearm was not proved, which would have added twenty-five years to Rosalez's sentence.

         In response to Perez-Gonzalez's decision, the State petitioned for criminal contempt. Perez-Gonzalez agreed to a bench trial for that proceeding, at which the parties stipulated in writing that Perez-Gonzalez's plea agreement "required" him to testify "in any case against any co-defendant." The trial ...

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