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Judges discuss fundamental error, ineffective trial counsel assistance

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Fundamental error and prejudice for ineffective assistance of trial counsel present two substantively different questions, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded Thursday in a post-conviction case.

In Gloria Benefield v. State of Indiana, No. 41A01-1006-PC-310, Gloria Benefield appealed the denial of her petition for post-conviction relief on grounds that she had ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Benefield was convicted of Class C felony forgery and was found to be a habitual offender after she presented a doctored letter at a job interview claiming she was a certified qualified medication aide. Benefield was not QMA certified.

On direct appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that although Jury Instruction 6 improperly defined “defraud,” it didn’t rise to the level of fundamental error as she claimed.

The Court of Appeals Thursday had to determine whether the decision on direct appeal that Jury Instruction 6 didn’t result in fundamental error is effectively a decision that the trial counsel didn’t render ineffective assistance. The judges compared the standards for fundamental error with that for ineffective assistance prejudice, and cited several cases on this issue that traced back to Moore v. State, 649 N.E.2d 686 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995). Moore held that because the trial court’s instruction didn’t rise to the level of fundamental error, Moore’s appellate counsel couldn’t be deemed ineffective for failing to raise the issue on appeal. But Moore dealt with appellate counsel and appellate and trial counsel have different tasks, which result in different kinds of deficient performance and prejudice, wrote Judge Terry Crone.

The judges held that fundamental error and prejudice for ineffective assistance of trial counsel present two substantively different questions.

“Further, we conclude that when a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel is based on a failure to object, and that error was advanced as fundamental error on direct appeal, a finding that the error did not rise to fundamental error does not automatically rule out the possibility that the error resulted in prejudice sufficient to establish ineffective assistance,” wrote Judge Crone. “In addition, we conclude that the bar establishing fundamental error is higher than that for prejudice of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Therefore, where an appellant has failed to prove ineffective assistance of trial counsel, our holding would exclude a finding of fundamental error.”

Benefield failed to carry her burden to show that, but for her counsel’s failure to object, there was a reasonable probability that she would have been found not guilty. Given the totality of the instructions provided to the jury, the judges were unable to say, but for her attorney’s failure to object, the outcome of the case would have been different.

The judges also found her attorney didn’t render ineffective assistance of trial counsel by not objecting to testimony Benefield believed was inadmissible hearsay evidence. The attorney explained he didn’t object to the testimony because he didn’t want to call any more attention to the information in Exhibit 7, a document from the company in which the Indiana Department of Health contracts to administer the test required to obtain QMA certification. The department's program director of administration testified that Benefield had signed Page 2 of the document stating that she knew she hadn’t passed the QMA certification test.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. 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!!!

  5. 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.

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