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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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