23-year molestation sentence affirmed despite improper aggravator

Despite a trial court improperly considering an aggravating factor that went against a “clear directive” from the Indiana Court of Appeals, a man’s 23-year sentence for molesting his niece was upheld in a Thursday opinion.

The case of Benjamen P. Chastain v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-1553, dates back to 1999, when appellant-defendant Benjamen Chastain molested B.L., a young relative. When allegations arose several years later that Chastain had molested B.L.’s half-sister, B.L. disclosed her own experience. A third relative, L.B., also came forward with allegations against Chastain.

Chastain proceeded to a jury trial on two felony counts in April 2019, and he was convicted of Class A felony child molesting against B.L. The Orange Circuit Court sentenced him to 40 years, with 10 years suspended.

Chastain’s conviction was reduced to a Class B felony on direct appeal, and the case was remanded for resentencing. In its first opinion in the case, the Court of Appeals found “concerning” an aggravating factor noting other allegations of child abuse against Chastain, even though he did not admit, was not charged or had been acquitted of charges based on those allegations.

However, in resentencing Chastain to 23 years on remand, the trial court noted “there has [sic] certainly been other allegations of sexual and improper misconduct … .” While acknowledging the COA’s instructions regarding those allegations, the trial court decided to “take into consideration … that you had three individuals who have made allegations of sexual improprieties against you. So[,] before I gave that great weight I’m going to now just give it moderate weight. So[,] I’m going to use those allegations as a moderating factor as opposed to being an aggravating factor in themselves.”

The trial court assigned “the greatest weight” to the aggravator that Chastain was at least 21 years old at the time he molested B.L., allowing his age to be an enhancing factor.

Chastain challenged the use of his age as an aggravator in his second appeal of the case, arguing under Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S. Ct. 2531 (2004), that he was entitled to have a jury determine whether his age should have constituted an aggravating factor. Blakely held that trial courts could not enhance sentences based on additional facts unless those facts were a prior conviction, found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, admitted by the defendant or found by the sentencing judge after the defendant consented to judicial fact-finding.

Here, “Chastain admitted his date of birth at the sentencing hearing,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote, rejecting Chastain’s argument. His birthdate is Jan. 12, 1976, making him 23 during the summer of 1999 when B.L. was molested.

“Accordingly, the trial court did not err by using Chastain’s age at the time of the offense as an aggravator,” Tavitas wrote. She added Chastain had also waived his Blakely arguments by not objecting at the time of sentencing.

The Court of Appeals likewise did not find an abuse of discretion based on the trial court’s use of the other allegations of molestation as a “moderating factor” that diminished Chastain’s lack of criminal history. The appellate panel did, however, raise concerns about the trial court’s decision.

“On remand, despite our clear directive, the trial court again considered the allegations related to L.B., for which Chastain was acquitted, to diminish the weight of the lack of criminal history mitigator. That was improper,” Tavitas wrote.

“Nevertheless, our Supreme Court has repeatedly noted that ‘[a] single aggravating circumstance is enough to justify an enhancement or the imposition of consecutive sentences,’” Tavitas continued. “… The trial court, here, found several valid aggravators and several other mitigators. Under these circumstances, we can say with confidence that the trial court would have imposed the same sentence, even without the improper consideration that was used to diminish the weight of the mitigator.”

Finally, the COA rejected Chastain’s argument that his sentence was inappropriate in light of the nature of his crime and character.

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