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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. I will continue to pray that God keeps giving you the strength and courage to keep fighting for what is right and just so you are aware, you are an inspiration to those that are feeling weak and helpless as they are trying to figure out why evil keeps winning. God Bless.....

  2. Some are above the law in Indiana. Some lined up with Lodges have controlled power in the state since the 1920s when the Klan ruled Indiana. Consider the comments at this post and note the international h.q. in Indianapolis. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/human-trafficking-rising-in-indiana/PARAMS/article/42468. Brave journalists need to take this child torturing, above the law and antimarriage cult on just like The Globe courageously took on Cardinal Law. Are there any brave Hoosier journalists?

  3. I am nearing 66 years old..... I have no interest in contacting anyone. All I need to have is a nationality....a REAL Birthday...... the place U was born...... my soul will never be at peace. I have lived my life without identity.... if anyone can help me please contact me.

  4. This is the dissent discussed in the comment below. See comments on that story for an amazing discussion of likely judicial corruption of some kind, the rejection of the rule of law at the very least. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/justices-deny-transfer-to-child-custody-case/PARAMS/article/42774#comment

  5. That means much to me, thank you. My own communion, to which I came in my 30's from a protestant evangelical background, refuses to so affirm me, the Bishop's courtiers all saying, when it matters, that they defer to the state, and trust that the state would not be wrong as to me. (LIttle did I know that is the most common modernist catholic position on the state -- at least when the state acts consistent with the philosophy of the democrat party). I asked my RCC pastor to stand with me before the Examiners after they demanded that I disavow God's law on the record .... he refused, saying the Bishop would not allow it. I filed all of my file in the open in federal court so the Bishop's men could see what had been done ... they refused to look. (But the 7th Cir and federal judge Theresa Springmann gave me the honor of admission after so reading, even though ISC had denied me, rendering me a very rare bird). Such affirmation from a fellow believer as you have done here has been rare for me, and that dearth of solidarity, and the economic pain visited upon my wife and five children, have been the hardest part of the struggle. They did indeed banish me, for life, and so, in substance did the the Diocese, which treated me like a pariah, but thanks to this ezine ... and this is simply amazing to me .... because of this ezine I am not silenced. This ezine allowing us to speak to the corruption that the former chief "justice" left behind, yet embedded in his systems when he retired ... the openness to discuss that corruption (like that revealed in the recent whistleblowing dissent by courageous Justice David and fresh breath of air Chief Justice Rush,) is a great example of the First Amendment at work. I will not be silenced as long as this tree falling in the wood can be heard. The Hoosier Judiciary has deep seated problems, generational corruption, ideological corruption. Many cases demonstrate this. It must be spotlighted. The corrupted system has no hold on me now, none. I have survived their best shots. It is now my time to not be silent. To the Glory of God, and for the good of man's law. (It almost always works that way as to the true law, as I explained the bar examiners -- who refused to follow even their own statutory law and violated core organic law when banishing me for life -- actually revealing themselves to be lawless.)

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