Cases & Deals

Pro bono client wins Seventh Circuit appeal, securing right to have post-conviction claims heard after twenty-year delay

Client(s) Evans, James A.

Jones Day obtained a significant victory for a pro bono client in a Seventh Circuit appeal, resulting in a precedential decision. The court concluded that our client is entitled to federal review of his post-conviction claims because the Illinois state court's failure to adjudicate his post-conviction petition—which was filed over two decades ago—rendered the state process ineffective to protect his rights.

Mr. Evans sought state post-conviction relief in 2003, maintaining his innocence and raising claims of prosecutorial misconduct in his underlying convictions. Yet for nearly two decades, the Illinois post-conviction court failed to consider his claims on the merits. Frustrated by this unjustifiable delay, Mr. Evans filed a pro se habeas petition in 2019 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

The district court dismissed Mr. Evans's petition, accepting the State's argument that all but "seven months" of the (at that point) seventeen-year delay were attributable to Mr. Evans himself. Mr. Evans promptly appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which appointed Jones Day to represent him.

Jones Day argued that the factual record revealed that it was the State, not Mr. Evans, who bore the blame for the egregious delay in the state-court proceedings. Jones Day further argued that, in light of this inordinate and unjustified delay, Mr. Evans was excused from complying with the requirement that a prisoner exhaust all state-court remedies before proceeding in federal court.

The Seventh Circuit unanimously reversed the district court in a published decision, holding that the delay was both "inordinate" and "unjustifiable." The court documented how the extraordinary delay in Mr. Evans's state-court proceedings stemmed largely from the State's own conduct, "both in its capacity as a respondent to the litigation and as the state trial court itself," and explained that the delay amounted to a "nothing short of a breakdown in state processes." The Seventh Circuit noted that "[c]learly, the state was responsible for the delay," because the state had repeatedly failed to turn over certain discovery materials, which "played a major role in dragging this episode out." The Seventh Circuit also recognized that the record "show[ed] a general lack of action or urgency by all involved" on the part of the State. The court faulted the federal district court, too, for failing to "roll[] up its sleeves with the particulars of the factual record," thereby largely overlooking the State's role in causing the delay. All told, the Seventh Circuit noted that it was "trouble[d]," "unsettl[ed]," and "alarm[ed]" by the twenty-year delay and remanded the matter to the federal district court "with an accompanying sense of urgency" to consider the merits of Mr. Evans's petition. Now, after two decades, a court will finally consider Mr. Evans's post-conviction claims on the merits.

Evans v. Wills, No. 21-1704, --- F. 4th ---- (7th Cir. April 27, 2023)