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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. "So we broke with England for the right to "off" our preborn progeny at will, and allow the processing plant doing the dirty deeds (dirt cheap) to profit on the marketing of those "products of conception." I was completely maleducated on our nation's founding, it would seem. (But I know the ACLU is hard at work to remedy that, too.)" Well, you know, we're just following in the footsteps of our founders who raped women, raped slaves, raped children, maimed immigrants, sold children, stole property, broke promises, broke apart families, killed natives... You know, good God fearing down home Christian folk! :/

  2. Who gives a rats behind about all the fluffy ranking nonsense. What students having to pay off debt need to know is that all schools aren't created equal and students from many schools don't have a snowball's chance of getting a decent paying job straight out of law school. Their lowly ranked lawschool won't tell them that though. When schools start honestly (accurately) reporting *those numbers, things will get interesting real quick, and the looks on student's faces will be priceless!

  3. Whilst it may be true that Judges and Justices enjoy such freedom of time and effort, it certainly does not hold true for the average working person. To say that one must 1) take a day or a half day off work every 3 months, 2) gather a list of information including recent photographs, and 3) set up a time that is convenient for the local sheriff or other such office to complete the registry is more than a bit near-sighted. This may be procedural, and hence, in the near-sighted minds of the court, not 'punishment,' but it is in fact 'punishment.' The local sheriffs probably feel a little punished too by the overwork. Registries serve to punish the offender whilst simultaneously providing the public at large with a false sense of security. The false sense of security is dangerous to the public who may not exercise due diligence by thinking there are no offenders in their locale. In fact, the registry only informs them of those who have been convicted.

  4. Unfortunately, the court doesn't understand the difference between ebidta and adjusted ebidta as they clearly got the ruling wrong based on their misunderstanding

  5. A common refrain in the comments on this website comes from people who cannot locate attorneys willing put justice over retainers. At the same time the judiciary threatens to make pro bono work mandatory, seemingly noting the same concern. But what happens to attorneys who have the chumptzah to threatened the legal status quo in Indiana? Ask Gary Welch, ask Paul Ogden, ask me. Speak truth to power, suffer horrendously accordingly. No wonder Hoosier attorneys who want to keep in good graces merely chase the dollars ... the powers that be have no concerns as to those who are ever for sale to the highest bidder ... for those even willing to compromise for $$$ never allow either justice or constitutionality to cause them to stand up to injustice or unconstitutionality. And the bad apples in the Hoosier barrel, like this one, just keep rotting.

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