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SCOTUS declines Indiana death penalty case

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The nation’s highest court won’t re-consider a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court late last year that upheld a man’s death sentence and revised its stance on what it means when a jury fails to recommend a unanimous sentence.

In a private conference Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States denied a writ of certiorari in the case of Daniel Ray Wilkes v. Indiana, 09-1539, which stems from the state Supreme Court’s unanimous direct appeal ruling Dec. 9, 2009. The justices affirmed Daniel Ray Wilkes' convictions and death penalty and in March denied a rehearing request. His defense attorneys in June filed a request with the SCOTUS for review. An order list issued today shows the court declined the request.

Wilkes was arrested in 2006 for the murders in Evansville of Donna Claspell and her daughters, 13-year-old Avery Pike and 8-year-old Sydne Claspell, and a jury ultimately found him guilty. But the jurors couldn’t reach a unanimous agreement on whether Wilkes should live or die, as one person opposed the sentence. Special Judge Carl Heldt from Clark Circuit Court sentenced him to death, but Wilkes argued the trial court should have considered the jury's inability to arrive at a unanimous sentencing recommendation as a mitigating factor.

A divided state Supreme Court had previously held in Roche v. State, 596 N.E.2d 896 (Ind. 1992), that no meaning should be interpreted from a jury's failure to reach a recommendation, nor should it be considered as a mitigating factor during the penalty phase. With its decision last year in Wilkes, the justices found the jury's uncertainty to be a relevant consideration rather than a mitigating factor that the trial court should consider in determining an appropriate sentence.

"We cannot say that the death sentences in this case are inappropriate. The nature of the offense is a triple murder of a mother and her two children. The murders, especially of Donna and Sydne, were committed in a particularly gruesome manner. We have upheld death sentences in similar cases," Justice Theodore R. Boehm wrote for the court at the time.

Now that the federal justices have denied Wilkes’ request, his post-conviction timetable begins with a hearing set for next summer and a special judge’s decision expected by August 2011. Ultimately, the Indiana Supreme Court will likely again receive the case at the post-conviction relief stage and eventually may have to decide when to set an execution date.

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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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