MOUNT CARROLL, Ill. — The attorney for David Huffman is petitioning the court for a vacation of his murder conviction based on claims that his guilty plea was made after incorrect and insufficient sentencing information was provided to him.

If the petition is approved, Huffman could be granted a new trial.

Huffman pled guilty in 1995 to murdering his girlfriend, 14-year-old Melinda Wilkinson, with a baseball bat earlier that year. Upon conviction, he was sentenced on Sept. 13, 1995, to serve up to 75 years in prison.

Huffman and Attorney James W. Mertes appeared before Carroll County Circuit Court Judge William Kelly on Monday for an evidentiary hearing on an amended petition for post conviction relief. Mertes stated that a challenge to the guilty plea had been identified, based on the court’s admonitions to Huffman at the time of the plea entry. According to a post-conviction trial brief relative to validity of the guilty plea, the defendant is “challenging the voluntariness of his original plea of guilty” to the murder charge and saying the plea was made without full knowledge of its consequences.

Under Illinois statute, the Post Conviction Hearing Act provides an avenue for someone convicted of a crime to challenge their conviction or sentence based on the claim of a violation of their state or federal rights.

In the trial brief, Mertes quotes court transcripts showing that in presiding over Huffman’s initial appearance on Feb. 23, 1995, Judge John W. Rapp Jr. admonished Huffman that his sentence could garner varying penalties, including a sentence of death, life imprisonment or a definite sentence of 20 to 60 years in prison. The document states that on March 14, 1995, Huffman appeared before the court in response to a Bill of Indictment filed against him, charging him with three courts of first-degree murder and a fourth count of concealment of a homicidal death. The brief quotes Rapp as saying the first three counts carry the possibility of a sentence from 20 to 100 years or life imprisonment. At a pre-trial hearing held July 5, 1995, transcripts quote Rapp as telling Huffman the sentencing possibilities included mandatory life imprisonment or a sentence of 20 to 80 years. Later the transcripts quote State’s Attorney Val Gunnarsson stating the range of penalties as up to 100 years in prison or a natural life sentence.

According to the brief, Mertes states the statute defines the sentence of imprisonment for a felony at that time was a term “not less than 20 years and not more than 60 years” or if the murder was accompanied by exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior, the court may sentence the defendant to a term of natural life imprisonment. Mertes alleges that Huffman suffered a substantial deprivation of his federal and state constitutional rights in that his due process rights were violated by the trial court’s failure to properly admonish him. In addition, Mertes claims the court failed to establish a record that Huffman was aware of extended term sentencing provisions wherein the court could and did find the criminal offense was premeditated and was the result of exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior, thereby sentencing him to serve a mandatory minimum of 60 years. He also claims the court incorrectly admonished the defendant at the time of his plea that the sentencing range for the Class 3 felony of concealment was two to 10 years, “when, in fact, the correct statutory range was two to five years.”

Mertes then notes that on Aug. 7, 1995, Huffman entered a “general plea” to the Bill of Indictment and it appears his counsel at that time intended to exclude count one, including specific intent as one of the essential elements. He states in the trial brief that the court then asserted that “direct intent” was one of the two findings necessary to trigger the imposition of a sentence of either life imprisonment or a term of 60 to 100 years. Mertes claims the court did not inform Huffman of the “two findings” it might make to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence, only that the minimum sentence was 20 years.

In the Illinois Supreme Court rules on criminal proceedings, Rule 402 states that the court shall not accept a plea of guilty without informing the defendant of the nature of the charge, the minimum and maximum sentence prescribed by law, their right to plead not guilty or guilty, and by pleading guilty, the defendant waives the right to a trial.

The trial brief claims the court repeatedly failed to properly admonish the defendant as to the applicable sentencing range and quoted an Illinois case finding from 1974 in the ruling of People v. Fred.

“When a trial court informs a defendant that the minimum sentence is less than it actually is, a guilty plea cannot be intelligently and understandingly entered,” the ruling found.

In the brief, Mertes states: “The record simply does not demonstrate that the Defendant fully understood the consequences of his plea. In fact, the record demonstrates that the Defendant understood the consequences of his plea to be far different than which they ultimately determined to be at sentencing.”

The trial brief states that if the court finds in favor of Huffman and rules to vacate the conviction, no further hearing of the amended petition for post conviction relief likely would be necessary. In that instance, Huffman could get a new trial or have his sentence amended by the court. If the court rules against the brief, the matter will be scheduled for an evidentiary hearing on the other issues raised by the petition, including the competence of previous counsel.