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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. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  2. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  3. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

  4. I totally agree with John Smith.

  5. An idea that would harm the public good which is protected by licensing. Might as well abolish doctor and health care professions licensing too. Ridiculous. Unrealistic. Would open the floodgates of mischief and abuse. Even veteranarians are licensed. How has deregulation served the public good in banking, for example? Enough ideology already!

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