WOODSTOCK — A McHenry man serving a 30-year prison sentence for fatally stabbing his friend at a party will not get a new trial.
McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt said Victor Bandala-Martinez, 29, failed to carry his burden of proof at an evidentiary hearing May 5 by not proving that his constitutional rights were violated.
After a three-day bench trial in May 2010, Judge Joseph Condon found Bandala-Martinez guilty of first-degree murder for twice stabbing a 17-year-old McHenry high school student.
Prosecutors at trial said Bandala-Martinez stabbed Yair Cabrera in December 2008 in the heart and spleen outside party in a McHenry apartment. The murder happened after Bandala-Martinez and Cabrera had argued about Cabrera telling others that Bandala-Martinez had cheated on his girlfriend, whom Bandala-Martinez married while the murder case was pending.
Bandala-Martinez repeatedly told police that he had jabbed Cabrera with a kitchen fork to try to minimize responsibility for murdering his friend, prosecutors said. Bandala-Martinez later told police that he dropped the weapon while fleeing, and police never found it.
Following his conviction, Bandala-Martinez filed a post-conviction petition arguing that his trial lawyer was ineffective for advising him that he would not be able to have a jury trial because he would have to testify, and therefore his right to testify and his right to a jury trial were compromised.
Over a series of conversations before his trial, Bandala-Martinez said his attorney, then-Assistant Public Defender Christopher Harmon, "manipulated him" by telling him the law required he testify if he went with a jury trial. Harmon is currently an associate judge in the 22nd Judicial Circuit.
Bandala-Martinez testified during the hearing and said he wanted to speak on his behalf at trial but Harmon told him that he would be at a disadvantage in a jury trial because McHenry County jurors could be racist. He also claimed that Harmon told him the case would likely be decided on the basis of his illegal status in the country.
He said Harmon told him he wasn't ready to testify because prosecutors would likely confuse him, make him cry and get him to say things that could potentially hurt his case.
Bandala-Martinez also said interpreters were not present during several conversations between he and his lawyer. This contradicted Harmon's testimony, who said an interpreter was present for about 90 percent of their conversations prior to trial. Harmon said Bandala-Martinez spoke "limited English" but his understanding of the language was functional enough to communicate occasionally without an interpreter's assistance.
Harmon said it was Bandala-Martinez's decision to have a bench trial and they discussed the matter on several occasions, often with an interpreter. He also denied telling Bandala-Martinez that he had to testify, and instead said he told him it was his decision whether he wanted to take the stand.
Bandala-Martinez's appellate lawyer, Bill Bligh, said his client had a "crystal clear" understanding of what happened because he was on trial for his life facing a first-degree murder charge. He said Bandala-Martinez knew specific details that supported his claims and because of his claims that Harmon told him he had to testify if he wanted a jury trial both constitutional rights were violated.
Assistant State's Attorney Michael Combs said Bandala-Martinez's claims were "absolutely preposterous." He said Harmon's testimony was much more credible than the defendant's "fantastical allegations" and the court record clearly proves Bandala-Martinez understood his rights prior to and at the time of trial.
Wilbrandt said in his decision that Harmon's testimony was credible, unlike the testimony of Bandala-Martinez. He said he believed the defendant was advised of his right to testify and his right to trial by both Harm and former Judge Joseph Condon when he signed a jury waiver and during his bench trial.
The jury waiver was also in Spanish — making it easy for Bandala-Martinez to understand, Wilbrandt said.