A state appellate court says a Tazewell County man's constitutional rights were violated when he agreed to a de facto life sentence as a teenager a quarter-century ago.
Phillip Johnson was 16 when he and his adult sister, Angela Oakes, were charged with shooting and killing of their father, James Johnson; and his girlfriend, Frances Buck, in 1994.
Phillip Johnson was 16 when he and his adult sister were charged with killing their father and his girlfriend. Johnson entered into a plea deal with prosecutors, agreeing to a 110-year sentence in the murders to avoid a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Johnson was incarcerated in 1996. He's currently at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, Ill.
Johnson's first postconviction petition was rejected by the trial court in 1999. He filed an expedited motion for leave to file a second postconviction petition in 2017.
This petition argued Johnson's 8th Amendment rights were violated because the state didn't consider his young age or circumstances, such as a low IQ and history of parental abuse, into account during the original sentencing to 110 years in prison, which Johnson's appointed counsel argued was effectively a de facto life sentence.
The Tazewell County trial court also dismissed this second petition on grounds that the sentence was agreed to as part of a plea deal.
But in reviewing on appeal, the 3rd District Appellate Court in Ottawa says Tazewell County erred in dismissing Johnson's postconviction petition. In 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court found sentencing juveniles to effective life sentences violates the 8th Amendment if youth and other factors aren't taken into play.
"There is no difference between 110 years and the natural life sentence that the defendant faced, but this may not have been fully appreciated or comprehended by a 16-year-old," the court majority wrote. "Moreover, the sentence shows the defendant’s inability to deal with prosecutors and vulnerability to outside pressure and influence."
The appellate court is sending Johnson's case back to Tazewell County for resentencing.
Justice Daniel Schmidt dissented, arguing Johnson would need to withdraw his guilty plea to become eligible for a new sentencing.
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