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Judge reduces death sentences to life without parole

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If he’d had the ability more than three years ago to factor in a jury’s deadlocked view on the death penalty, a southern Indiana judge says he would have imposed life without parole rather than the death penalty for a man convicted of triple murder.

But he didn’t have that ability then, and it wasn’t until the Indiana Supreme Court re-evaluated precedent almost two years ago that trial judges throughout the state got that chance.

On Aug. 12, Vanderburgh Circuit Judge Carl Heldt did what he’d wanted to years ago – modify a death sentence for convicted killer Danny Ray Wilkes and instead order he serve three terms of life without parole.

The judge’s Post-Conviction Relief order came in the case of Wilkes v. State, No. C01-1009-PC-612, the latest in a line of court decisions since the triple-murder trial ended in late 2007.

Wilkes was convicted in December 2007 on three murder counts for the April 2006 killings of an Evansville mother and her two daughters, ages 8 and 13. While jurors agreed on the guilt phase of the trial, they came back deadlocked 11-1 on the penalty Wilkes should face for the crimes. Judge Heldt, serving as a special judge in the case tried in Clark Circuit Court, sentenced Wilkes to death. That marked the first time any Indiana judge had faced that issue since state law had changed and required judges to follow juries’ sentencing recommendations in capital cases. Before that, judges needed only to consider juries’ recommendations and could enter a different penalty in capital cases.

The Indiana Supreme Court in December 2009 upheld the death sentences against Wilkes, finding nothing wrong with how Judge Heldt had applied the law and precedent in place at the time. But the court re-evaluated its stance on what it means when a jury fails to recommend a sentence in a capital case, and chose a new direction from what had been done in the past.

A divided court in 1992 had held no meaning should be interpreted from a jury’s failure to reach a recommendation on death, nor should it be considered a mitigating factor during the penalty phase. That view was upheld in subsequent cases, but when Wilkes’ case appeared before the justices in 2009, Justice Theodore Boehm wrote that an increased emphasis on the role of juries in sentencing during the past decade gave the court reason to reconsider that precedent.

With its ruling, the justices set a new standard for future cases: a jury’s uncertainty could be a relevant consideration for a trial judge to consider in determining the appropriate sentence. Justice Brent Dickson dissented and wrote that he continued to believe a jury’s inability to reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation on death shouldn’t be a factor.

That set the stage for Judge Heldt’s decision Aug. 12, after the PCR proceedings played out during a two-day hearing in June. The Indiana Public Defender’s Office represented Wilkes and argued he should receive a new trial on various issues, such as ineffective assistance of trial counsel and evidence insufficiency. Judge Heldt denied all of Wilkes’ PCR claims, but decided the death sentences should be modified.

"Had this Court had the authority to consider the jury's inability to reach a penalty recommendation at the time of its original sentencing order, it would have sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without parole," Judge Heldt wrote in his 50-page order. “This court finds that the inability of a jury to recommend the death penalty is a significant consideration."

Citing one of the landmark cases from 1976 that reinstated the death penalty nationwide, Judge Heldt described the death penalty as "society’s ultimate criminal sanction" and wrote that the jury’s indecision must be weighed against all the other aggravating and mitigating factors in this case. That leads him to conclude that Wilkes should receive a sentence of life without parole for each of the three murder counts. The judge wrote that if he’d had that chance to consider the deadlocked jury issue before, his ruling would have been different. Now, it would be “manifestly unjust to allow this Court’s ruling to remain unchanged.”

The Office of the Indiana Attorney General hasn’t yet reached a decision on whether to appeal, according to spokesman Bryan Corbin. Procedurally, the state can ask the Indiana Supreme Court to hear the case and then take the case to the federal courts for consideration.

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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