Segal McCambridge Attorneys Prevail in Pro Bono Criminal Appeal


September 10, 2012

In a case that will help clarify the way judges must instruct juries in Illinois homicide cases, Segal McCambridge shareholder Paul E. Wojcicki and associate Jason A. Higginbotham prevailed on an appeal before the Appellate Court of Illinois, First Judicial District. On Friday, August 31, 2012, the court reversed its earlier decision in People v. Billups and remanded the case for a new trial.

The question on appeal was whether, in a homicide trial, a trial judge must give a second degree murder instruction where he or she determines that the evidence warrants a self-defense instruction. There was no dispute that the defendant, Lavelle Billups, discharged the gun that ended a man's life. But Mr. Billups testified that he acted in self-defense. The prosecution claimed the killing was pre-meditated.

At trial, defense counsel requested jury the instructions pertaining to self-defense. The state and the court agreed that the evidence supported this request. The defense then asked that the jury be instructed on both first and second degree murder. The state's counsel objected to this and requested that only a first degree murder instruction be given. The judge noted the defense's objection, but granted the state's request.

Mr. Billups was convicted of first degree murder.

At this point, Segal McCambridge entered the case. Working with the Office of the Illinois Appellate Defender, Mr. Wojcicki agreed to handle Mr. Billups' appeal pro bono. Mr. Wojcicki and Mr. Higginbotham then filed for a new trial on the basis of the trial judge's refusal to give the instruction for second degree murder.

The rules covering jury instructions in Illinois were not crystal clear at the time. A 1980 case, People v. Lockett, had held that when instructions for self-defense are given to a jury, the jury should also be given the instructions for second degree murder. A later appellate court case, People v. Anderson from 1994, interpretedLockett to permit a trial judge to deny a second degree murder instruction in "all or nothing cases." According to Anderson, where the stories of the defense and prosecution are so diametrically opposed that there is no overlap between them, the judge may omit the second degree instruction.

The appeals court relied on Anderson and ruled against Mr. Billups. Segal McCambridge petitioned for leave to appeal the appellate decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. At about the same time, another case, People v. Washington, was working its way through the system. Washington turned on similar issues. In the course of deciding the Washington case, the Supreme Court determined thatAnderson was wrongly decided, and remanded Billups back down to the appellate court to be reexamined in light of Washington. That decision's meaning was unambiguous: failure to provide the second degree was an error. The only question that remained was the degree of the error's magnitude.

Mr. Higginbotham handled the argument. The state attempted to make the case that the error was "harmless," but Mr. Higginbotham pointed out that there was no way of knowing that the jury would not have opted for a verdict of murder in the second degree if given the option to do so, sparing Mr. Billups the harm of a more severe verdict. The court found for the defense and remanded the case.

"Handling an appeal is a very valuable experience for a young trial attorney," says Mr. Wojcicki. "In going over the trial record to see what you can use on appeal, you can learn a lot about the way questions are asked, how focused they are, how effective. If you pay attention, you can learn a lot about how to ask your own questions when you're at trial." For his part, Mr. Higginbotham said the case was a lesson to him in "the importance of preserving every single objection." If the defense hadn't objected to the judge's omission of the jury instruction, they would have faced more of an uphill path getting the decision overturned.

The case was handled under the auspices of Segal McCambridge's Pro Bono and Public Service Committee. The firm encourages attorneys to perform at least 25 hours of pro bono work a year; many do considerably more. The firm recognizes that pro bono work provides opportunities for attorneys to get outside their comfort zones and the security of their day-to-day routines. Further, Mr. Wojcicki points out, "a firm like ours is able to bring a high skill level to the process which helps keep the system sharp and helps it function better."