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Justices affirm LWOP sentence, admission of suicide note

April 24, 2015

A southern Indiana man challenging his robbery and murder convictions and sentence to spend the rest of his life in prison lost his appeal before the Indiana Supreme Court Thursday. The justices rejected the man’s claim that his sentence should be reduced to a term of years.

Charles Stephenson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 2012 robbery and murder of 67-year-old Leigh Jennings in Aurora. Stephenson, who was heavily in debt, had borrowed money from Jennings in the past, who distrusted banks and kept her money at her house. She was found brutally bludgeoned to death in her kitchen. Several days after her body was discovered, police went to Stephenson’s home and found he had attempted suicide. A suicide note denied any involvement in the murder.

Stephenson raised multiple claims in Charles Stephenson v. State of Indiana, 15S00-1401-LW-40, including that the physical evidence had to show that the violence against Jennings was part of a plan to take her property and not just part of the murder; and that evidence regarding his attempted suicide should not have been admitted at trial.

“There is no evidentiary support for the defense theory that the defendant first murdered Jennings and only thereafter decided to take her property,” Justice Brent Dickson wrote. “To the contrary, the evidence and its reasonable inferences show that the defendant, deep in debt, distraught, and desperate for cash, (1) went to Jennings home purposefully to obtain money and, either in response to her refusal to give it to him or in the absence of such refusal, (2) struck her in the head multiple times, killing her, and then (3) took cash from her safes. Obtaining Jennings's money was the defendant's objective. Whether the murder was committed in the course of the robbery or after its completion does not undermine the correctness of the robbery conviction.”

Stephenson argued the attempted suicide evidence was inadmissible because it wasn’t relevant to Jennings’ murder, and even if it was, it should have been excluded under Ind. Evidence Rule 403 because any probative value was outweighed by the prejudicial impact.

“We decline to find that the mere existence of an attempted suicide, without more, is relevant evidence of a person's guilty conscience about committing a charged crime, especially a charged crime which the person expressly disavows when the suicide is attempted. Because we conclude that the attempted suicide evidence was relevant to the issue of motive for the ensuing robbery and murder, however, its tenuous use as evidence of consciousness of guilt does not undermine its admissibility,” Dickson wrote.

The high court found the circumstances of the crime support the sentence of life without parole and refused to reduce Stephenson’s sentence to a term of years.
 

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