Jury undecided so judge orders death

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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An Evansville judge has handed down the first death sentence since Indiana lawmakers changed the jury's role six years ago. The sentence also is likely the first execution order resulting from a penalty-phase hung jury since 1993.

The execution of Daniel Ray Wilkes is set for Jan. 25, 2009, but that will likely be delayed for years by appeals and could have potential to reach the Supreme Court of the United States as an issue of first impression about whether a death sentence can follow a hung jury, as well as whether a judge has the power to base an execution decision on the jury's finding in the guilt phase.

The appellate wheels delving into those legal issues come from Friday's hearing in Evansville, where Vanderburgh Circuit Judge Carl Heldt issued a death sentence for Wilkes. He'd been convicted in December 2007 on three counts of murder for the April 2006 killings of an Evansville mother and her two daughters, ages 13 and 8. 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 took on that task.

A judge has not gone through this since the change, according to Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart, who tracks death penalty cases and runs a Web site on those cases at

U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), held the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to find aggravating factors necessary for imposing the death penalty in capital cases.

Indiana lawmakers made the changes following the Ring ruling. Judges now need to follow a jury's sentencing recommendation, unlike before when judges only needed to consider that recommendation and could enter a different penalty.

Other states require a judge to sentence a defendant to life in prison without parole if a jury can't reach a unanimous death penalty verdict. But in Indiana, that decision is up to a judge.

In Wilkes' case, the issue centered on whether Judge Heldt could rely on the juror's sealed verdicts in the 11-1 deadlock, Stewart said. The judge unsealed those verdicts and announced in court that jurors had unanimously found the existence of aggravators, and that the aggravators outweighed the mitigators, Stewart said. They just couldn't agree on whether the death penalty was appropriate, he said.

Judge Heldt said in court that state law is clear that the court can't consider a jury's indecision, Stewart said.

"The judge also personally found, based on the evidence, that there were aggravators beyond reasonable doubt and the death penalty was appropriate," Stewart said. "Of course, we've got some obvious appealable issues here on the defendant's part, and a first-impression issue at least following Ring v. Arizona."

Stewart said he believes Indiana caselaw is strong enough to uphold the sentence, especially with a three-year-old decision in Holmes v. State, 820 N.E.2d 136 (Ind. 2005), which involved a hung jury from 1993. The court held that because Indianapolis man Eric Holmes was convicted of two intentional murders and robbery, the aggravators of multiple murders and intentional felony murder were proven beyond a reasonable doubt and no violation of Apprendi occurred.

"We're on pretty solid ground here," Stewart said. "But they always go to federal court on habeas grounds. Whether the SCOTUS would grant cert is always the question. But I don't know of any case in the country that would be on that point right now. If it's still unanswered by the time it gets to that level, they could take it."

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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.