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Indiana Supreme Court upholds death penalty

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The Indiana Supreme Court today upheld the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a woman and her two daughters. In doing so, the high court re-evaluated its stance on what it means when a jury fails to recommend a sentence.

In Danny Ray Wilkes v. State of Indiana, No. 10S00-0808-DP-453, Danny Ray Wilkes appealed his convictions of murdering Donna Claspell and her two daughters, ages 8 and 13, in 2006, and his death sentence.

One of Wilkes' many arguments as to why he should be re-sentenced was because the trial court should have considered the jury's inability to arrive at a unanimous sentencing recommendation as a mitigating factor. A divided Supreme Court had previously held in Roche v. State, 596 N.E.2d 896 (Ind. 1992), that no meaning should be interpreted from a jury's failure to reach a recommendation, nor should it be considered as a mitigating factor during the penalty phase. That view was upheld in subsequent cases; however, Justice Theodore Boehm wrote that the increased emphasis on the role of the jury in sentencing gives the court a reason to reconsider Roche and its progeny.

The justices found the jury's uncertainty to be a relevant consideration rather than a mitigating circumstance that the trial court should consider in determining an appropriate sentence.

"We therefore ... hold that it is 'appropriate' for the trial court to consider the fact that the jury ­- whose recommendation would otherwise be binding ­- could not agree," wrote Justice Boehm. "We do not find the trial court's adherence to then-existing precedent to be error, much less reversible error."

On this issue, Justice Brent Dickson dissented because he continued to believe a jury's inability to reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation is logically unrelated to the defendant's conduct or personal circumstances, so it shouldn't be considered.

Wilkes also argued the trial court was required to consider the evidence that he had adjusted to life in prison as a mitigating circumstance, citing Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1, 4 (1986).

The trial court was required to consider all the evidence relevant to mitigation, including Wilkes' positive adjustment to incarceration. Both the jury and the trial court heard this evidence and found the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating ones, wrote Justice Boehm. Under Skipper, that is all that is required.

The high court found a detective's statement expressing his opinion of Wilkes' guilt was problematic under Indiana Evidence Rule 704(b), but that one line was relevant only to guilt and not the penalty phase, and was harmless in view of the forensic evidence and confessions supporting Wilkes' guilt.

The justices also affirmed the admittance of transcripts and recordings of four interviews in which Wilkes acknowledged his guilt; the use of "special verdict" forms; other issues Wilkes raised on appeal.

"We cannot say that the death sentences in this case are inappropriate. The nature of the offense is a triple murder of a mother and her two children. The murders, especially of Donna and Sydne, were committed in a particularly gruesome manner. We have upheld death sentences in similar cases," wrote Justice Boehm.

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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  4. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  5. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

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