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Justices affirm 1989 murder convictions

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The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld four murder convictions against a Lakeville man who as a teenager killed his family 20 years ago.

In doing so, justices have determined that a defendant's speedy trial right doesn't include the time for an interlocutory appeal when trial proceedings have been stayed.

Justices issued a unanimous 18-page opinion today in Robert Jeffrey Pelley v. State of Indiana, No. 71S05-0808-CR-446, which affirmed the rulings from St. Joseph Superior Judge Roland Chamblee about two years ago. Aside from the speedy-trial delay issue, justices found evidence sufficient to support the convictions, and the trial judge didn't err in any other aspect.

A jury in 2007 found Pelley guilty of the 1989 murders of his father, stepmother, and two stepsisters. The state presented evidence to support its theory that Pelley, who'd been grounded and not able to attend his senior prom, killed them in order to attend the school event with his girlfriend. He received consecutive 40-year terms totaling 160 years.

Prosecutors hadn't filed charges in the early 1990s, but a new prosecutor did after opening the cold case more than a decade later. When filing charges in 2002, the prosecutor filed an interlocutory appeal based on a third-party discovery dispute that stopped records from being released to the state for use at trial. The appellate court issued a stay but held onto the appeal for two years, despite a rule that puts interlocutory appeals on an expedited review schedule - pushing the state close to its deadline of taking the case to trial within a year as is mandated by Indiana Criminal Rule 4(C) on speedy trials, unless a defendant somehow caused the delay, or if an "emergency" or "court congestion" occurred.

The case finally went to trial in July 2006, and a jury convicted him the following year. In April 2008, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and held the state's interlocutory appeal was chargeable to the state for purposes of the speedy trial rule and Pelley should be discharged. The appellate panel held the speedy trial rule contained no exception for interlocutory appeals and that Pelley wasn't responsible for the delay caused by prosecutors and the appellate process.

The Attorney General's Office asked justices to reinstate the convictions, and the justices heard arguments in August 2008. During arguments, justices mulled who should be penalized in this case and wondered whether to establish a blanket rule for interlocutory appeals relating to Criminal Rule 4, or whether this case involves details that could be classified as an "emergency" or "congestion."

In analyzing the case, the court relied on Martin v. State, 245 Ind. 224, 228, 194 N.E. 2d 721, 723 (1963), which held neither the prosecutor nor trial judge could control the time required for appeal and most appeals would trigger a dismissal - something the legislature couldn't have intended.

"When trial court proceedings have been stayed pending resolution of the State's interlocutory appeal, the trial court loses jurisdiction to try the defendant and has no ability to speed the appellate process," Justice Theodore Boehm wrote. "As a practical matter, applying the Criminal Rule 4(C) one-year requirement to interlocutory appeals would render an appeal by the State impossible because it would in all likelihood trigger a mandatory discharge of the defendant."

However, Justice Boehm added some advice for the state to consider in these types of cases in the future. He wrote, "Although Appellate Rule 21(A) provides generally for expedited consideration of interlocutory appeals, in the future the State should alert the appellate court when it pursues an interlocutory appeal not chargeable to the defendant so the appellate court can be sensitive to the defendant's interest in avoiding delay."

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