Robertson v. Butts, No. 15-1221 (7th Cir. 2016)Annotate this Case
Fowler pleaded guilty in Indiana to unlawful possession of a firearm by a “serious violent felon” who was also a habitual offender. The judge sentenced him to 15 years’ imprisonment for the possession offense and 15 extra based on his criminal history. While his case was on appeal, the Supreme Court of Indiana held (Mills) that a prior conviction used to establish “serious violent felon” status cannot also be used to establish habitual offender status. Fowler’s appellate lawyer did not raise Mills before the appellate court, which affirmed his sentence. On collateral review, the same court held that Fowler’s plea bargain waived reliance on the approach that Mills adopted. Fowler then sought federal relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied this petition, relying on the state judiciary’s conclusion that Fowler had waived the benefit of Mills. The Seventh Circuit vacated, noting that Judge Magnus-Stinson, who denied Fowler’s federal collateral attack, had also sentenced Fowler during her time on the state’s bench; 28 U.S.C. 455(a) requires the case to be heard by a different federal judge. Section 2254 is designed to ensure that a fresh pair of eyes looks at the matter, from a different perspective.