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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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