The Indiana Supreme Court may be asked to determine whether an Evansville judge correctly decided to uphold a death sentence after a jury’s indecision regarding the penalty.
Attorneys for death row inmate Daniel Ray Wilkes aren’t taking issue with how Vanderburgh Circuit Judge Carl Heldt applied the law but rather the nature and constitutionality of the statute itself.
Judge Heldt in late January decided on the death sentence for Wilkes, who was convicted in December on three murder counts for the April 2006 killings of an Evansville mother and her two daughters, ages 8 and 13. While jurors agreed on the guilt phase of the trial, they came back deadlocked 11-1 on the penalty Wilkes should face for the crimes. Judge Heldt took on that task and on March 13 declined to set aside his decision.
The decision marks the first time since Indiana law changed in 2002 that a judge had to determine the sentence in a capital murder case after a jury deadlocked over the penalty. The state law amendment requires judges to follow the juries’ sentencing recommendations in capital cases. Before that, judges needed only to consider juries’ recommendations but could enter a different penalty in capital murder cases.
Southern Indiana attorneys William Gooden and John Goodridge, who are representing Wilkes, plan to appeal the decision, which would go to the state’s highest court as it relates to a capital case. Likely at issue will be a question of whether a death sentence can follow a hung jury, as well as whether a judge has the power to base an execution decision on the jury’s finding in the guilt phase.