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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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