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Explanation as to the spirit of the law was harmless error

February 11, 2014

Although a trial court’s words to a jury about the spirit of Indiana’s criminal law was improper and an error, it was harmless and could not overturn a defendant’s sentence of life without parole.

Michael Inman was convicted and sentenced for murder, murder while committing or attempting to commit the offense of robbery, robbery, and unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon after a jewelry store robbery that left the proprietor dead.

Inman appealed his conviction and sentence partly on the grounds that the judge’s instructions to the jury related to the murder while committing or attempting to commit the offense of robbery. The court told the jurors, “The spirit of our criminal law would not be fostered by a ruling that a defendant could not be convicted of robbing a man he had just killed.”

Inman argued the last sentence allowed the jury to convict him of robbery and felony murder even if all the elements of the robbery occurred before the store owner died.

The Indiana Supreme Court pointed out that while Inman had mischaracterized the law, he was correct about the last sentence. Instead of explaining the law to the jury, the Supreme Court found the trial court seemed to be making an argument for the state.

However, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence in Michael Inman v. State of Indiana, 49S00-1207-LW-376. It found the error was harmless because of the overwhelming evidence against the defendant. Also, it concluded that a “reasonable jury” would have returned a guilty verdict if the last sentence had not been given.

Justice Mark Massa concurred in result but found no error in the trial court’s instructions. The judge, in Massa’s opinion, was trying to avoid confusion for the jurors.

“…the judge quite correctly told the jury that you can’t avoid a robbery conviction by killing your victim before you take his property,” Massa wrote. “That is simple, to-the-point guidance for lay jurors and should be encouraged, no admonished.”



 
 

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