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Court reverses conviction over letter

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A man's convictions of criminal mischief and operating while intoxicated were reversed by the Indiana Court of Appeals because a letter he wrote while trying to negotiate a plea agreement - which was rejected - shouldn't have been admitted at his trial.

In Gabino Gonzalez v. State of Indiana, No. 82A01-0809-CR-406, Gabino Gonzalez argued the admittance of the letter was an error because it was hearsay and should be inadmissible because it was part of guilty plea negotiations. Gonzalez wrote a letter to the school corporation of the school bus he hit after running a stop sign. In the letter, he apologized for the accident and admitted he drank the day of the accident. He also asked the school corporation to show him compassion.

The trial court took Gonzalez's plea agreement under advisement and reset its sentencing date to allow the school corporation time to decide whether to object the plea agreement. The trial court rejected the agreement and the letter was admitted into evidence over Gonzalez's objection.

His letter was a privileged communication that shouldn't have been admitted into evidence because it was written as part of the plea negotiation process based on Indiana Code Section 35-35-3-4 and Ind. Evidence Rule 410, wrote Judge Melissa May.

The judge noted Rule 410 provides no test for determining whether a statement was made "in connection with" a plea offer. The Court of Appeals used Gilliam v. State, 650 N.E.2d 45, 49 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995), and Stephens v. State, 588 N.E.2d 564, 566 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), to support its holding the letter shouldn't have been admitted at trial.

"Gonzalez's letter to the School was akin to Stephens' statement to the pre-sentence investigator, as it included 'information concerning the "circumstances attending the commission of the offense,"' and it undoubtedly had 'as its ultimate purpose the reduction of punishment or other favorable treatment from the State to the defendant,'" wrote the judge.

The appellate court also found Mundt v. State, 612 N.E.2d 566, 568 (Ind. Ct. App. 1993), to be distinguishable from the instant case because the sentencing court effectively introduced another party - the school corporation - into the plea negotiation process. Mundt's testimony regarding the accomplice came after he and the state reached a plea agreement. Once the plea negotiations ended, the protections of I.C. Section 35-35-3-4 were rendered inapplicable, she wrote.

The admittance of the letter also wasn't a harmless error as the state contended, because the letter was tantamount to a confession. The letter likely had a significant effect on the jury and its admission was reversible error even if there was other evidence before the jury that could support the conviction, wrote Judge May.

The case was remanded for a new trial.

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