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Court affirms conviction, sentence despite error

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Even though a jury instruction given during a forgery trial misstated the law, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a defendant's conviction and sentencing after finding other statements and instructions prevented any fundamental error in the case.

In Gloria Benefield v. State of Indiana, No. 41A01-0806-CR-272, Gloria Benefield appealed her conviction of and sentence for Class C felony forgery for providing a falsified Qualified Medication Aide certification during a job interview. During her trial, the trial court instructed the jury on the definition of "defraud," to which Benefield unsuccessfully objected because it was apparently drawn from Black's Law Dictionary.

She was sentenced to eight years incarceration for forgery, which was enhanced by six years for being a habitual offender.

Benefield waived her appeal of the issue of the jury instruction for review because she advanced a different reason on appeal than what she objected to at trial. She claimed on appeal that the instruction amounted to a fundamental error so it should be reviewed.

The original jury instruction defined "defraud" as to make a misrepresentation of an existing material fact, knowing it to be false, or making it recklessly without regard to whether it is true or false. The Indiana Supreme Court has held that an intent to defraud involves an intent to deceive, and the jury instruction suggesting that a person making a representation with reckless disregard for its truth may have the intent to deceive is not a proper statement of the law, wrote Judge Cale Bradford.

Even though the instruction misstated the law, it's not enough to reverse Benefield's conviction. The jury was properly informed in several instances that Benefield must have had the "intent to defraud" in order to be guilty of forgery.

"In summary, even though the jury was misinformed once regarding the proper mens rea for forgery, it was properly informed four times, including three times by the trial court. This repetition of the proper mens rea, especially because it came mostly from the trial court, very likely would have cured the error by itself," wrote Judge Bradford.

In addition, the jury was instructed to consider all the instructions as a whole and not to single out any point or instruction. As a result, there was no fundamental error in this case.

The appellate court also affirmed the admittance of testimony regarding documents that weren't admitted into trial and Benefield's sentence.

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