Justices affirm cop killer's death sentence

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Heritage, what Heritage? The New Age is dawning .... an experiment in disordered liberty and social fragmentation is upon us .... "Carmel City Council approved a human rights ordinance with a 4-3 vote Monday night after hearing about two hours of divided public testimony. The ordinance bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, among other traits. Council members Rick Sharp, Carol Schleif, Sue Finkam and Ron Carter voted in favor of it. The three council members opposing it—Luci Snyder, Kevin Rider and Eric Seidensticker—all said they were against any form of discrimination, but had issues with the wording and possible unintended consequences of the proposal." Kardashian is the new Black.

  2. Can anyone please tell me if anyone is appealing the law that certain sex offenders can't be on school property. How is somebody supposed to watch their children's sports games or graduations, this law needs revised such as sex offenders that are on school property must have another non-offender adult with them at all times while on school property. That they must go to the event and then leave directly afterwards. This is only going to hurt the children of the offenders and the father/ son mother/ daughter vice versa relationship. Please email me and let me know if there is a group that is appealing this for reasons other than voting and religion. Thank you.

  3. Should any attorney who argues against the abortion industry, or presents arguments based upon the Founders' concept of Higher Law, (like that marriage precedes the State) have to check in with the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program for a mandatory mental health review? Some think so ... that could certainly cut down on cases such as this "cluttering up" the SCOTUS docket ... use JLAP to deny all uber conservative attorneys licenses and uber conservative representation will tank. If the ends justify the means, why not?

  4. Tell them sherry Mckay told you to call, they're trying to get all the people that have been wronged and held unlawfully to sign up on this class action lawsuit.

  5. Call Young and Young aAttorneys at Law theres ones handling a class action lawsuit