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Justices vacate life sentence

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The Indiana Supreme Court vacated a convicted murderer's sentence of life in prison without parole because the trial court judge didn't have the authority to impose the sentence after the jury failed to reach a unanimous sentencing recommendation.

Kyle Kiplinger appealed his sentence of life in prison without parole following his convictions of murder and felony murder for the rape and death of Bobbi Jo Braunecker. Kiplinger and Darrick O'Brien gave her a ride home following a party and beat her and knocked her unconscious so O'Brien could have sex with her. They killed her and left her body in a river.

The state sought life without parole based on the qualifying aggravating circumstance that Kiplinger intentionally killed Braunecker while committing or attempting to commit rape. The jury found him guilty, but was unable to reach a unanimous decision on a sentence recommendation. The jury never returned a special verdict form finding the state proved the aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt, only that the state proved that the charged aggravating circumstance outweighed any mitigating circumstances. The judge then sentenced him to life without parole.

In Kyle Kiplinger v. State of Indiana, No. 62S00-0809-CR-486, Kiplinger argued the jury never found the charged aggravating circumstance had been proven by a reasonable doubt. The state claimed that the jury determined that the state had proved the charged aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating circumstances on a "special verdict form," and that this sufficiently demonstrated that the jury had found an aggravating circumstance beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury in Kiplinger's trial wasn't able to reach a unanimous decision on the life sentence and its guilt phase verdicts don't necessary establish that the aggravating circumstance was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

"The jury found that the State had proved the charged aggravating circumstance out-weighed the mitigating circumstances. We acknowledge that it would be permissible to infer that the jury unanimously found the existence of the charged aggravating circumstance from this finding," he wrote. "We are unable, however, to infer that the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that the State had proved the aggravating circumstance."

When a jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision as to the existence of an aggravating circumstance and the Sixth Amendment prohibits the trial judge from imposing a sentence of life without possibility of parole under Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-9(f), a new penalty phase trial is required.

The justices remanded for re-sentencing. If the state dismisses its request for the life sentence, then Kiplinger should be re-sentenced to a term of years. If not, then the trial court shall convene a new penalty phase jury.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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