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Court orders new arson trial

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The Indiana Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for a man convicted of arson because the trial court erred in letting the state amend the charging information after it had read the original charges to the jury.

David L. Gibbs v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-1010-CR-1074, presented an issue of first impressions regarding when exactly a jury trial has "commenced" for purposes of amending charging information pursuant to Indiana Code 35-34-1-5(b). David Gibbs appealed his conviction of Class B felony arson, in which the trial court allowed the state to make a substantive amendment to the charging information after voir dire.

Gibbs was charged with three counts of Class B felony arson of a multi-family residence, with two of the charges specifically naming Gibbs' neighbors as having their residences damaged. He allegedly started the fire in his own apartment. The other charge named a business that had its property damaged. The state made amendments to two of the counts before the trial started, and read the amended charges to the jury during voir dire. Then, the state moved to amend the information to omit the neighbors' names. Gibbs objected, but the state allowed it.

The appellate judges found the state's amendments to Gibbs' charging information were substantive because as Gibbs had argued in his objection, he planned to argue he wasn't guilty of the charges because the fire did not actually cause damage to the two neighbors' apartments.

They looked to other jurisdictions to find it is a widely accepted rule that a jury trial begins with voir dire, so since Gibbs' trial had commenced with voir dire, allowing the estate to make substantive amendments to his information after that point was an error, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

Gibbs also challenged the determination that he was competent to stand trial. He requested a psychiatric examination, in which two psychologists examined him. He was found not competent to stand trial and committed for competency restoration services. Months later, the trial court realized it didn't properly follow I.C. 35-36-3-1, which requires an examination by a psychiatrist as well, and appointed one to examine him. The psychiatrist was unable to personally evaluate Gibbs because he was uncooperative.

He was later found to be restored to competency, and the trial court denied Gibbs' motion for psychiatric examination to determine his competency.

Although the trial court erred by not originally having a psychiatrist examine him before his competency hearing, it was a harmless error because the trial court did not declare him competent to stand trial as a result of the error.

The judges vacated Gibbs' arson conviction and remanded for a new trial.  
 

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