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Justices vacate life sentence

March 22, 2010

The Indiana Supreme Court vacated a convicted murderer's sentence of life in prison without parole because the trial court judge didn't have the authority to impose the sentence after the jury failed to reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation.

Kyle Kiplinger appealed his sentence of life in prison without parole following his convictions of murder and felony murder for the rape and death of Bobbi Jo Braunecker. Kiplinger and Darrick O'Brien gave her a ride home following a party and beat her and knocked her unconscious so O'Brien could have sex with her. They killed her and left her body in a river.

The state sought life without parole based on the qualifying aggravating circumstance that Kiplinger intentionally killed Braunecker while committing or attempting to commit rape. The jury found him guilty, but was unable to reach a unanimous decision on a sentence recommendation. The jury never returned a special verdict form finding the state proved the aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt, only that the state proved that the charged aggravating circumstance outweighed any mitigating circumstances. The judge then sentenced him to life without parole.

In Kyle Kiplinger v. State of Indiana, No. 62S00-0809-CR-486, Kiplinger argued the jury never found the charged aggravating circumstance had been proven by a reasonable doubt. The state claimed that the jury determined that the state had proved the charged aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating circumstances on a "special verdict form," and that this sufficiently demonstrated that the jury had found an aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury in Kiplinger's trial wasn't able to reach a unanimous decision on the life sentence and its guilt phase verdicts don't necessary establish that the aggravating circumstance was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

"The jury found that the State had proved the charged aggravating circumstance out-weighed the mitigating circumstances. We acknowledge that it would be permissible to infer that the jury unanimously found the existence of the charged aggravating circumstance from this finding," he wrote. "We are unable, however, to infer that the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the State had proved the aggravating circumstance."

When a jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision as to the existence of an aggravating circumstance and the Sixth Amendment prohibits the trial judge from imposing a sentence of life without possibility of parole under Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-9(f), a new penalty phase trial is required.

The justices remanded for re-sentencing. If the state dismisses its request for the life sentence, then Kiplinger should be re-sentenced to a term of years. If not, then the trial court shall convene a new penalty phase jury.

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