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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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