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Justices leave man’s life sentence intact

April 17, 2014

The Indiana Supreme Court Wednesday upheld a Lake County man’s sentence of life in prison without parole for the murder of a co-worker during a robbery. Ronnie Jamel Rice claimed the trial court improperly relied on non-statutory aggravators when imposing his sentence.

Lake Superior Judge Diane Ross Boswell imposed the sentence after Rice pleaded guilty to murder, murder in the perpetration of a robbery and robbery. He appealed directly to the Supreme Court, which ordered Boswell to revise the sentencing order to comport with prior caselaw and clarify whether she relied on non-capital aggravators when imposing the sentence.

Boswell issued a revised sentence order of life without parole in March 2013, leading to this appeal.

Rice claimed the revised sentencing order is also deficient because the same factors impermissibly relied upon in the original order are also in the revised order. He argued the factors – the nature of the offense, the totality of the circumstances, and the character assessment of Rice – were merely cut from the section in the first order labeled “Aggravating Circumstances” and pasted into the section labeled “Mitigators” in the subsequent order, where Rice said they serve as “mitigation-neutralizers.”

The main issue before the justices was whether the extraneous language from Finding 7 of the revised order is an evaluation and balancing of the mitigating and aggravating circumstances in determination of the sentence as required by Harrison v. State, 644 N.E.2d 1243, 1262 (Ind. 1995),  or if it describes impermissible non-statutory aggravators.

“In this case, we believe the trial court did not use non-statutory aggravators. The language Rice challenges, rather than providing reasons to improperly increase Rice’s sentence, demonstrates the trial judge’s thought process as she evaluated and balanced the mitigating factors against the lone aggravating factor. It was the trial judge’s attempt at a reasonably detailed recitation of her reasons for imposing a sentence,” Justice Mark Massa wrote in Ronnie Jamel Rice v. State of Indiana, 45S00-1206-CR-343.  

Rice also asked the court to revise his sentence to a term of years, but the justices declined as they were not convinced that either the brutal nature of the attack on Rice’s co-worker or Rice’s character warrants a revision.
 

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