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Divided Supreme Court orders new murder trial

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Three justices have tossed out a murder conviction, ordering a new trial on the grounds that the trial judge should have given the jury the option to consider a lesser offense of reckless homicide.

But two justices disagreed, believing that requiring a trial court to give a lesser-included offense jury instruction after the defendant denied his guilt under oath would create a mockery of the murder trial.

In Brice Webb v. State of Indiana, No. 71S05-1106-CR-329, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case from St. Joseph Superior Judge Jerome Frese involving Brice Webb’s trial for the shooting death of his girlfriend in October 2009.

During the trial in 2010, the judge refused Webb’s request to give a reckless homicide lesser-included jury instruction because of the defendant’s testimony that denied he had committed the murder and wasn’t even present at the scene. The judge determined Webb can’t deny the act and then take advantage of the lesser-offense option. The jury found Webb guilty and determined he was a habitual offender, and the court sentenced him to 65 years for murder, enhanced by 30 years for the habitual offender adjudication. The Court of Appeals rejected each of Webb’s appellate claims and affirmed the judgment.

Justice Robert Rucker wrote the opinion, and he was joined by Justices Brent Dickson and Frank Sullivan in reversing the trial court. The majority relied on Wright v. State, 658 N.E.2d 563 (Ind. 1995), which developed a three-part test that trial courts should use when deciding whether to instruct on a lesser-included offense. Rucker wrote that the trial court didn’t go far enough in analyzing Webb’s case by that standard, and that Wright and its progeny make clear that trial courts must look at evidence presented by both parties in determining whether a serious evidentiary dispute exists.

The majority found the evidence in this case sufficient to support the jury’s guilty verdict, but the evidence also produced a serious dispute about whether Webb acted knowingly or recklessly. Depending on how the jury viewed and weighed the evidence, it could have led the jurors to return with a conviction of reckless homicide instead. The trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury was reversible error, Rucker wrote.

But Justice Steven David and Chief Justice Randall Shepard dissented in a separate opinion.

Because Webb chose to testify and say he wasn’t present at the scene, he shouldn’t be allowed to “make a mockery out of the state’s burden of proof and argue to a jury he was not there, but if he was, he didn’t have the necessary intent,” David wrote.

“I believe to require the trial court to give the lesser included jury instruction when Webb claims under oath at trial that he was not present and therefore not the shooter would result in a farce upon the trial court,” David wrote.

 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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