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Indiana Supreme Court upholds death penalty

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The Indiana Supreme Court today upheld the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a woman and her two daughters. In doing so, the high court re-evaluated its stance on what it means when a jury fails to recommend a sentence.

In Danny Ray Wilkes v. State of Indiana, No. 10S00-0808-DP-453, Danny Ray Wilkes appealed his convictions of murdering Donna Claspell and her two daughters, ages 8 and 13, in 2006, and his death sentence.

One of Wilkes' many arguments as to why he should be re-sentenced was because the trial court should have considered the jury's inability to arrive at a unanimous sentencing recommendation as a mitigating factor. A divided Supreme Court had previously held in Roche v. State, 596 N.E.2d 896 (Ind. 1992), that no meaning should be interpreted from a jury's failure to reach a recommendation, nor should it be considered as a mitigating factor during the penalty phase. That view was upheld in subsequent cases; however, Justice Theodore Boehm wrote that the increased emphasis on the role of the jury in sentencing gives the court a reason to reconsider Roche and its progeny.

The justices found the jury's uncertainty to be a relevant consideration rather than a mitigating circumstance that the trial court should consider in determining an appropriate sentence.

"We therefore ... hold that it is 'appropriate' for the trial court to consider the fact that the jury ­- whose recommendation would otherwise be binding ­- could not agree," wrote Justice Boehm. "We do not find the trial court's adherence to then-existing precedent to be error, much less reversible error."

On this issue, Justice Brent Dickson dissented because he continued to believe a jury's inability to reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation is logically unrelated to the defendant's conduct or personal circumstances, so it shouldn't be considered.

Wilkes also argued the trial court was required to consider the evidence that he had adjusted to life in prison as a mitigating circumstance, citing Skipper v. South Carolina, 476 U.S. 1, 4 (1986).

The trial court was required to consider all the evidence relevant to mitigation, including Wilkes' positive adjustment to incarceration. Both the jury and the trial court heard this evidence and found the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating ones, wrote Justice Boehm. Under Skipper, that is all that is required.

The high court found a detective's statement expressing his opinion of Wilkes' guilt was problematic under Indiana Evidence Rule 704(b), but that one line was relevant only to guilt and not the penalty phase, and was harmless in view of the forensic evidence and confessions supporting Wilkes' guilt.

The justices also affirmed the admittance of transcripts and recordings of four interviews in which Wilkes acknowledged his guilt; the use of "special verdict" forms; other issues Wilkes raised on appeal.

"We cannot say that the death sentences in this case are inappropriate. The nature of the offense is a triple murder of a mother and her two children. The murders, especially of Donna and Sydne, were committed in a particularly gruesome manner. We have upheld death sentences in similar cases," wrote Justice Boehm.

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