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Appellate court upholds murder conviction

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Although the trial court erred in finding a police officer was a skilled witness uniquely qualified to assess a murder victim's truthfulness, it was a harmless error because his testimony was an admissible lay observation, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded today.

In Theotis Tolliver v. State of Indiana, No. 45A03-0906-CR-250, Theotis Tolliver appealed his murder conviction and habitual offender enhancement resulting in 90-year sentence for shooting Benjamin Woodward Jr. Tolliver claimed the trial court erred by letting a police officer testify, based on Woodward's body language, about the "truthful" nature of certain statements made by the victim; by allowing into evidence some of Woodward's statements to his family as statements against interest under Indiana Evidence Rule 804(b)(3); by denying his motion for a continuance when a defense witness didn't appear at trial; and by prohibiting defense counsel from inquiring into certain state's witnesses' possible bias on cross-examination.

Tolliver and Woodward got into an argument after a dice game, which led to Tolliver shooting Woodward in front of several witnesses. Woodward told his family in the hospital Tolliver shot him but that he would take care of it and he wasn't a snitch. He didn't cooperate with police during the investigation. Woodward eventually died of his injuries.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Tolliver that the trial court erred by allowing a police officer to testify as a skilled witness regarding Woodward's body language at the time he made certain statements. The trial court allowed the officer to testify based on his interrogation training. Other jurisdictions have disapproved of body language testimony, and the appellate court was similarly skeptical of the testimony. Because the officer didn't testify regarding Woodward's specific truthfulness but just observed that Woodward was uncooperative, was angry, and didn't want to talk, that testimony is admissible pursuant to Evid. R. 701 as a lay opinion, wrote Judge Cale Bradford. As a result, it was a harmless error.

The Court of Appeals ruled the testimony by Woodward's family members that he told them Tolliver shot him and he would take care of it, shouldn't have been admitted into evidence as an admission against interest. The statements were merely a statement of intent. Given the independent eyewitness testimony identifying Tolliver as the shooter and the gun used to kill Woodward, the introduction of the family's testimony wasn't prejudicial enough to deny Tolliver a fair trial, wrote the judge.

The refusal to grant Tolliver a continuance to locate a defense witness wasn't an abuse of discretion because he had other witnesses testify on his behalf as alibi witnesses. In addition, there was difficulty locating the witness, who was likely uncooperative because he had three active warrants and was being investigated in connection with a murder case.

Finally the Court of Appeals found no error in limiting Tolliver's attorney's cross-examination of state witnesses about possible deals they would receive in exchange for testifying. The purported deals were purely speculative and unsupported by evidence.

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  1. Unfortunately, the court doesn't understand the difference between ebidta and adjusted ebidta as they clearly got the ruling wrong based on their misunderstanding

  2. A common refrain in the comments on this website comes from people who cannot locate attorneys willing put justice over retainers. At the same time the judiciary threatens to make pro bono work mandatory, seemingly noting the same concern. But what happens to attorneys who have the chumptzah to threatened the legal status quo in Indiana? Ask Gary Welch, ask Paul Ogden, ask me. Speak truth to power, suffer horrendously accordingly. No wonder Hoosier attorneys who want to keep in good graces merely chase the dollars ... the powers that be have no concerns as to those who are ever for sale to the highest bidder ... for those even willing to compromise for $$$ never allow either justice or constitutionality to cause them to stand up to injustice or unconstitutionality. And the bad apples in the Hoosier barrel, like this one, just keep rotting.

  3. I am one of Steele's victims and was taken for $6,000. I want my money back due to him doing nothing for me. I filed for divorce after a 16 year marriage and lost everything. My kids, my home, cars, money, pension. Every attorney I have talked to is not willing to help me. What can I do? I was told i can file a civil suit but you have to have all of Steelers info that I don't have. Of someone can please help me or tell me what info I need would be great.

  4. It would appear that news breaking on Drudge from the Hoosier state (link below) ties back to this Hoosier story from the beginning of the recent police disrespect period .... MCBA president Cassandra Bentley McNair issued the statement on behalf of the association Dec. 1. The association said it was “saddened and disappointed” by the decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown. “The MCBA does not believe this was a just outcome to this process, and is disheartened that the system we as lawyers are intended to uphold failed the African-American community in such a way,” the association stated. “This situation is not just about the death of Michael Brown, but the thousands of other African-Americans who are disproportionately targeted and killed by police officers.” http://www.thestarpress.com/story/news/local/2016/07/18/hate-cops-sign-prompts-controversy/87242664/

  5. What form or who do I talk to about a d felony which I hear is classified as a 6 now? Who do I talk to. About to get my degree and I need this to go away it's been over 7 years if that helps.

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