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Indiana Supreme Court: Court Addresses Criminal Law Issues in 3 Cases
Posted in Litigation

The Indiana Supreme Court issued three opinions Tuesday addressing criminal law issues.  In Helton v. State, the Court held that a post-conviction petitioner had not met his burden to establish an entitlement to relief.  In Lucio v. State, the Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of a mistrial after a witness inadvertently referred to the defendant’s prior incarceration.  Finally, in Dennis v. State, the Court concluded a sentence modification was in order because the trial court did not enter a sufficient sentencing statement.

Helton v. State:  Counsel Not Ineffective For Not Moving To Suppress Drugs

By Patrick Ziepolt

In Helton v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court rejected an argument for post-conviction relief based upon the ineffective assistance of counsel.  In 2002, Elkhart County police received tips that James Helton was selling methamphetamine from his residence.  Law enforcement raided Helton’s home and seized methamphetamine and marijuana.  Helton pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, a class A felony.  He was sentenced to 45 years in jail. 

Helton later petitioned for post-conviction relief, alleging that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to move to suppress the drugs recovered from his home.  He argued that the police lacked probable cause for their search and that he would have prevailed at trial without the drug evidence.  The post-conviction court denied relief.  The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with Helton and reversed.

On transfer, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that the convicted petitioner bears the burden of establishing grounds for relief by a preponderance of evidence.  The Court found that Helton failed to meet this burden because he had submitted no information about the State’s circumstantial evidence against him.  Helton had not shown that he would have escaped conviction even if the drug evidence had been suppressed.  Finding that trial counsel had therefore not prejudiced Helton, the Supreme Court affirmed the post-conviction court’s denial of relief.   

Justice Rucker wrote separately to question the majority’s statement that exclusion of the seized evidence would not have foreclosed conviction.  He argued that for drug related offenses, “once a motion to suppress the drugs has been granted, prosecution essentially ends.”  Justice Rucker agreed, however, that Helton had failed to carry his burden in the post-trial court.  He concurred in the result reached by the majority.  

Patrick Ziepolt is a student at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and a summer associate with Bingham McHale.

Lucio v. State:  No Mistrial For Fleeting Reference To Incarceration

By Meaghan Klem

In Lucio v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions for two counts of Murder and one count of Conspiracy to Commit Murder.  In this case, Lucio requested a mistrial after a witness inadvertently violated a pretrial order; the witness answered a juror’s question by testifying that she thought the defendant met his co-conspirator in jail.  The trial court immediately gave a curative instruction advising the jury to not consider the testimony.  No other witnesses mentioned the defendant’s incarceration, and the State never mentioned it.

The defendant argued he was so prejudiced by the testimony that it put him in a situation of grave peril that could only be remedied by a mistrial.  The Indiana Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the “clear instruction, together with strong presumptions that juries follow courts’ instructions and that an admonition cures any error, severely undercuts the defendant’s position.”  Because this one statement was the only mention of the defendant’s incarceration, he was not severely prejudiced.  “By all accounts the statement was fleeting, inadvertent, and only a minor part of the evidence against the defendant.”

Finally, the defendant argued that the testimony created a forbidden inference that placed him in great peril during the penalty phase of the trial.  Again, the Indiana Supreme Court disagreed:  “That the State sought life imprisonment does not alter the analysis of whether the trial court was compelled to grant a mistrial.”  The jury was properly instructed to consider no other circumstances other than those provided in instructions.  As such, the defendant’s criminal record was not at issue and the testimony did not result in grave peril during the penalty phase.

Meaghan Klem is a student at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and a summer associate with Bingham McHale.

Dennis v. State:  Sentencing Statement Insufficient

By Ashley Paynter

In Dennis v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court addressed a direct appeal from sentences for multiple crimes related to two 1997 murders.  Applying the law that was in effect at the time of the crimes, but is no longer in force, the Court concluded that the trial court did not enter a sufficient enough sentencing statement to support a sentence of life without parole.  The Court reduced Dennis’ life sentence without parole to a term of 65 years.  The Court affirmed Dennis’ sentences in all other respects.

Ashley Paynter is a student at the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, and a summer associate with Bingham McHale.

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