ILNews

Court reverses Pelley convictions

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed the murder convictions of a Lakeville man accused of murdering his family almost 20 years ago as a teenager.

But in doing so, the three-judge panel all but directly asked the Indiana Supreme Court to take on this issue of first impression and clarify an earlier ruling justices made. That ruling specifically refused to dismiss the case on Robert Pelley's argument that a delay between charging and trial dates conflicted with his due process of getting a speedy trial.

Now, the Indiana Supreme Court will likely be offered a chance to consider the question: "For purposes of Criminal Rule 4(C), against whom should the delay occasioned by legal maneuvers of a third party be charged - the defendant or the state?"

The ruling came Tuesday in Robert Jeffrey Pelley v. State of Indiana, No. 71A05-0612-CR-726. The ruling was originally marked as a not for publication memorandum, but was later revised as a for publication opinion.

Pelley's quadruple murder trial took place in St. Joseph County in July 2006, about four years after Pelley was first charged with the shotgun deaths of his father, stepmother, and two stepsisters in their Lakeville home in 1989. Prosecutors alleged that Pelley, 17 at the time, was angry that his father had told him he couldn't attend after-prom activities and killed the family so he could attend. The trial didn't start immediately after the 2002 charges because of legal wrangling involving the release of family counseling records, which the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in June 2005 were not protected by the state's counselor-client privilege. Pelley's defense team asked justices in mid-2006 before trial to dismiss the case because the delays had violated his due process, but the court denied that petition and the case went to trial.

A jury found him guilty, and Pelley received a 160-year sentence.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to reverse the convictions on grounds that Pelley's motion to dismiss the case before it ever went to trial should have been granted. At issue was whether Criminal Rule 4(C) applied in this case to ensure a speedy trial within one year, if that delay wasn't caused by the defendant, a congested court calendar, or an emergency situation.

Here, the state had issued a subpoena for Pelley's family counseling records but the agency had denied the request, and that resulted in a three-year delay as the case weaved its way to the Indiana Supreme Court.

"This case confronts this Court with an extremely unpleasant but compelling responsibility," Judge John T. Sharpnack wrote, citing a past case and pointing out the unusual circumstances of this appeal. "We realize that the defendant was ultimately convicted following an arduous jury trial. Such cases extract an enormous personal toll from the witnesses, jurors, and others participating. Resulting costs are significant and burden our taxpayers, and the time devoted to such trials and subsequent proceedings operate to delay the resolution of other pending controversies. It is with extreme reluctance that we must consider setting aside the defendant's conviction, thus rendering futile the results of the jury trial which found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

The court's majority determined that res judicata didn't bar its consideration of Pelley's argument because the previous writ of mandamus decision from the Indiana Supreme Court didn't clearly result in a final judgment on the merits.

Judge Sharpnack wrote that the justices didn't explain the basis for denying Pelley's petition, and the panel couldn't conclude that his claims were barred without having to guess what the justices were thinking. The authoring judge delved into possibilities of the high court's decision, but in the end noted that, "On this record, we cannot conclude that the Indiana Supreme Court rendered a judgment on the merits or that Pelley's claim is barred by res judicata."

For that reason, the court analyzed the issue and determined the delay could be attributed to the state, not Pelley, and the petition to dismiss would have been timely and should have been granted.

The state argued that it couldn't control the length of the appellate process and that it shouldn't be held responsible for the delays, as that would hinder its ability to file future interlocutory appeals. But the court determined the state's interpretation of caselaw would create a blanket exemption under Criminal Rule 4(C) for delays caused by interlocutory appeals.

"Although some states have blanket exceptions, Indiana does not," Judge Sharpnack wrote. "In order to accept the State's argument, we would have to rewrite Rule 4(C) to include a blanket exception for interlocutory appeals ... We are constrained to interpret and apply the rule as written. Consequently, we cannot write in a blanket exception."

Judge Ezra Friedlander dissented in his own five-page opinion, writing that the court wasn't barred from considering the issue but that he thought neither Pelley nor the state is at fault for the delay. He determined the facts in this case could be classified as an "emergency" or court "congestion" to justify a continuance for the trial date past the one-year limit.

"In view of the time it takes an appeal to wend its way through the appellate process, to hold otherwise could and in many cases would effectively deny the State the option of pursuing an interlocutory appeal of an unfavorable evidentiary ruling," he wrote, noting that he'd affirm the trial court's ruling on the motion.

The Attorney General's Office plans to ask the state's highest court to consider the case by a May 8 deadline, spokeswoman Staci Schneider said.
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