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COA upholds convictions in Indianapolis Hamilton Ave. murders

April 18, 2011

The Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed a man’s convictions and reduced his sentence to 421 years for his involvement in the gruesome robbery and murders of seven Indianapolis residents, including three children, in June 2006.

James Stewart was convicted of seven counts of felony murder, six counts of criminal confinement, robbery, carrying a handgun without a license, burglary, and found to be a habitual offender. Stewart, along with Desmond Turner, went to the home of Emma Valdez and Alberto Covarrubvias Sr. on Hamilton Avenue with the intent to rob the family after believing drugs and money were inside. The couple, their two children and Valdez’s grandson, along with two relatives who showed up during the robberies, were killed.

There were no eyewitnesses who placed him at the crime scene and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Testimony from four individuals regarding his confessions to being involved in the crime was used to convict him.

In James Stewart v. State of Indiana, No. 49A04-1001-CR-48, Stewart challenged his convictions of felony murder and robbery for violating double jeopardy principles, the admission of certain photographs and evidence and the exclusion of other testimony under the rules of hearsay, and whether he should have received the protections under the life without parole statute because his 425-year sentence is essentially a life sentence.

The appellate court agreed Stewart couldn’t be convicted of the robbery count and felony murder of one of the victims, and it vacated the robbery conviction and four-year sentence attached to it. In doing so, the majority declined to remand to enter judgment of conviction for the intentional murder conviction that the trial court vacated at sentencing. On this issue, Judge Cale Bradford concurred in result. The judges affirmed Stewart's remaining convictions, finding there was sufficient evidence presented to support them.

Regarding his sentence, the Court of Appeals found it didn’t violate equal protection considerations and wasn’t fundamentally unfair. Stewart wasn’t entitled to the protections found under the LWOP statute because his sentence is an aggregate one based on individual sentences imposed for multiple convictions and his habitual offender adjudication. The LWOP statute authorizes the imposition of a life sentence without parole for a single charge or conviction. Also, Stewart wasn’t denied due process in any fashion in the way he was sentenced, noted Judge James Kirsch.

The trial court didn’t err in excluding two statements implicating “Lucky” as the second shooter. Stewart wanted to have those statements admitted because he was trying to prove the truth of his assertion that Turner’s accomplice was named “Lucky,” not Stewart.

The judges also affirmed the admittance of testimony by a witness regarding the statement by Turner about finding Stewart after the murders to prevent Stewart from blaming Turner for the crimes. These statements were offered to show Turner’s then-existing state of mind.

With regard to crime scene and autopsy photos, the trial court didn’t err in admitting the gruesome photos as evidence. The probative value of the pictures outweighed any potential prejudice, wrote the judge.

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