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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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