ILNews

Jury undecided so judge orders death

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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An Evansville judge has handed down the first death sentence since Indiana lawmakers changed the jury's role six years ago. The sentence also is likely the first execution order resulting from a penalty-phase hung jury since 1993.

The execution of Daniel Ray Wilkes is set for Jan. 25, 2009, but that will likely be delayed for years by appeals and could have potential to reach the Supreme Court of the United States as an issue of first impression about whether a death sentence can follow a hung jury, as well as whether a judge has the power to base an execution decision on the jury's finding in the guilt phase.

The appellate wheels delving into those legal issues come from Friday's hearing in Evansville, where Vanderburgh Circuit Judge Carl Heldt issued a death sentence for Wilkes. He'd been convicted in December 2007 on three counts of murder for the April 2006 killings of an Evansville mother and her two daughters, ages 13 and 8. While jurors agreed on the guilt phase of the trial, they came back deadlocked 11-1 on the penalty Wilkes should face for the crimes. Judge Heldt took on that task.

A judge has not gone through this since the change, according to Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart, who tracks death penalty cases and runs a Web site on those cases at http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/death.htm.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), held the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to find aggravating factors necessary for imposing the death penalty in capital cases.

Indiana lawmakers made the changes following the Ring ruling. Judges now need to follow a jury's sentencing recommendation, unlike before when judges only needed to consider that recommendation and could enter a different penalty.

Other states require a judge to sentence a defendant to life in prison without parole if a jury can't reach a unanimous death penalty verdict. But in Indiana, that decision is up to a judge.

In Wilkes' case, the issue centered on whether Judge Heldt could rely on the juror's sealed verdicts in the 11-1 deadlock, Stewart said. The judge unsealed those verdicts and announced in court that jurors had unanimously found the existence of aggravators, and that the aggravators outweighed the mitigators, Stewart said. They just couldn't agree on whether the death penalty was appropriate, he said.

Judge Heldt said in court that state law is clear that the court can't consider a jury's indecision, Stewart said.

"The judge also personally found, based on the evidence, that there were aggravators beyond reasonable doubt and the death penalty was appropriate," Stewart said. "Of course, we've got some obvious appealable issues here on the defendant's part, and a first-impression issue at least following Ring v. Arizona."

Stewart said he believes Indiana caselaw is strong enough to uphold the sentence, especially with a three-year-old decision in Holmes v. State, 820 N.E.2d 136 (Ind. 2005), which involved a hung jury from 1993. The court held that because Indianapolis man Eric Holmes was convicted of two intentional murders and robbery, the aggravators of multiple murders and intentional felony murder were proven beyond a reasonable doubt and no violation of Apprendi occurred.

"We're on pretty solid ground here," Stewart said. "But they always go to federal court on habeas grounds. Whether the SCOTUS would grant cert is always the question. But I don't know of any case in the country that would be on that point right now. If it's still unanswered by the time it gets to that level, they could take it."
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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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