ILNews

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 http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/death.htm.

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. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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