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Judges discuss fundamental error, ineffective trial counsel assistance

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Fundamental error and prejudice for ineffective assistance of trial counsel present two substantively different questions, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded Thursday in a post-conviction case.

In Gloria Benefield v. State of Indiana, No. 41A01-1006-PC-310, Gloria Benefield appealed the denial of her petition for post-conviction relief on grounds that she had ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Benefield was convicted of Class C felony forgery and was found to be a habitual offender after she presented a doctored letter at a job interview claiming she was a certified qualified medication aide. Benefield was not QMA certified.

On direct appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that although Jury Instruction 6 improperly defined “defraud,” it didn’t rise to the level of fundamental error as she claimed.

The Court of Appeals Thursday had to determine whether the decision on direct appeal that Jury Instruction 6 didn’t result in fundamental error is effectively a decision that the trial counsel didn’t render ineffective assistance. The judges compared the standards for fundamental error with that for ineffective assistance prejudice, and cited several cases on this issue that traced back to Moore v. State, 649 N.E.2d 686 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995). Moore held that because the trial court’s instruction didn’t rise to the level of fundamental error, Moore’s appellate counsel couldn’t be deemed ineffective for failing to raise the issue on appeal. But Moore dealt with appellate counsel and appellate and trial counsel have different tasks, which result in different kinds of deficient performance and prejudice, wrote Judge Terry Crone.

The judges held that fundamental error and prejudice for ineffective assistance of trial counsel present two substantively different questions.

“Further, we conclude that when a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel is based on a failure to object, and that error was advanced as fundamental error on direct appeal, a finding that the error did not rise to fundamental error does not automatically rule out the possibility that the error resulted in prejudice sufficient to establish ineffective assistance,” wrote Judge Crone. “In addition, we conclude that the bar establishing fundamental error is higher than that for prejudice of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Therefore, where an appellant has failed to prove ineffective assistance of trial counsel, our holding would exclude a finding of fundamental error.”

Benefield failed to carry her burden to show that, but for her counsel’s failure to object, there was a reasonable probability that she would have been found not guilty. Given the totality of the instructions provided to the jury, the judges were unable to say, but for her attorney’s failure to object, the outcome of the case would have been different.

The judges also found her attorney didn’t render ineffective assistance of trial counsel by not objecting to testimony Benefield believed was inadmissible hearsay evidence. The attorney explained he didn’t object to the testimony because he didn’t want to call any more attention to the information in Exhibit 7, a document from the company in which the Indiana Department of Health contracts to administer the test required to obtain QMA certification. The department's program director of administration testified that Benefield had signed Page 2 of the document stating that she knew she hadn’t passed the QMA certification test.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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