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Justices affirm cop killer's death sentence

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A man sentenced to die for fatally shooting a Morgan County sheriff's deputy in 2001 will remain on death row despite his appellate claims he's mentally ill and not eligible for execution.

The Indiana Supreme Court issued a 56-page post-conviction ruling Tuesday that affirmed the conviction and death sentence of murderer Tommy Pruitt, who'd been rejected in a direct appeal more than three years ago but managed to convince justices to lower the standard of how mental retardation is determined by Hoosier courts.

Justice Frank Sullivan authored the lengthy opinion in Tommy Pruitt v. State of Indiana, No. 15S00-0512-PD-617, delving into Pruitt's many arguments that included ineffective trial and appellate counsel relating to evidence and claims of his mental retardation. A central theme throughout Pruitt's appellate cycle has been that his mental capacity bars him from execution under the Indiana Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).

Four of the justices rejected the claims and decided to leave the convictions and death sentence in place. But Justice Robert Rucker - a critic of the court's death penalty decisions who often rules on the side of imprisonment rather than execution - dissented because he's convinced that Pruitt is mentally retarded and shouldn't be put to death.

"After examining the evidence presented to the post-conviction court, I am even more convinced today (that he's mentally retarded and not eligible for the death penalty)," Justice Rucker wrote. "Pruitt's status has not changed. He was and still is mentally retarded. I would therefore reverse his death sentence and remand this cause with instructions to impose a term of years."

On appeal, Pruitt's attorneys made the mental retardation argument and the trial court judge ordered a mental health examination, which showed he did not have mental retardation. In 2003, a jury convicted him and recommended death for the shooting death of Morgan County Deputy Daniel Starnes two years earlier. The judge gave Pruitt the death penalty for a murder charge and 115 years for several other charges, and later denied requests for a new judge and post-conviction relief.

On direct appeal in 2005, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's finding that Pruitt is not mentally retarded based on the evidence - that his IQ was between 52 and 81 and not quite low enough to be spared. But in that ruling, the court also struck down Indiana's statutory requirement that mental retardation be established by "clear and convincing evidence" because the standard was deemed too high and a violation of the U.S. Constitution as explained in the Atkins ruling.

That decision didn't help Pruitt, but he's now able to turn to the federal courts for relief and would also be able to appeal to Indiana's governor for possible clemency.

Public defender Thomas C. Hinesley, one of the attorneys on this post-conviction appeal, said Pruitt will file a federal appeal and he'd likely fare better in federal court.

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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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