ILNews

Judge takes on death penalty decision

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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In the week ahead, an Evansville judge could be the first Hoosier jurist to hand down a death sentence since state law changed in 2002.

Vanderburgh Circuit Judge Carl Heldt is scheduled to conduct a sentencing hearing Friday morning for Daniel Ray Wilkes, who jurors convicted last month on three counts of murder for the April 2006 slayings of an Evansville mother and her two daughters, ages 13 and 8.

While they agreed on the guilt phase of the trial, jurors came back deadlocked 11-1 on the penalty Wilkes should face for the crimes. Judge Heldt, who's been on the bench for almost a decade, will pick up that decision.

The change that took effect six years ago requires a judge to follow a jury's sentencing recommendation, which in this case would mean unsealing verdict forms jurors had completed before announcing the impasse. Prior to the law change, judges only needed to consider the jury's recommendation and could enter a different penalty in a capital case.

A judge has not been called to do this since the change, according to Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart, who tracks death penalty cases and runs a Web site on them at http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/death.htm.

This case could hinge on what jurors pointed out about aggravators, Stewart said. During the penalty phase, Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco pointed to aggravators as being the multiple murders and one victim being younger than 12.

Because there wasn't a unanimous penalty phase ruling, Stewart said jurors may not have determined any aggravating circumstances existed. However, jurors may have done that by unanimously agreeing on the conviction for the three murders, thereby showing that those aggravators exist, he said.
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