Death sentence reversed in 2001 slaying of Morgan deputy

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The death sentence imposed on a man for the killing Morgan County Deputy Sheriff Daniel Starnes in 2001 has been reversed by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tommy R. Pruitt’s conviction and sentence were upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court, but the federal panel Tuesday remanded his case for a new penalty-phase proceeding.

“We conclude that Pruitt has established that he is intellectually disabled and categorically ineligible for the death penalty and that trial counsel were ineffective in their investigation and presentation of evidence that Pruitt suffered from schizophrenia,” Circuit Judge John Tinder wrote for the panel. “We therefore reverse the district court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

The trial court heard evidence of Pruitt’s mental state at sentencing but determined that the aggravating factor that he shot and killed a law enforcement officer in the line of duty outweighed any mitigating factors.

But in a 55-page opinion that traced the history of Pruitt’s IQ tests and intellectual ability to his elementary school days, Tinder wrote, “The Indiana Supreme Court made an unreasonable determination of fact in concluding that Pruitt’s work history, school history, and other evidence supported the finding that Pruitt failed to establish significantly subaverage intellectual functioning. Rather, the clear and convincing weight of the evidence establishes that Pruitt suffers from significantly subaverage intellectual functioning.”

“Pruitt’s trial counsel’s failure to investigate Pruitt’s mental illness fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Trial counsel knew that shortly after Pruitt was arrested for killing Deputy Starnes, a (Department of Correction) psychiatrist had diagnosed Pruitt with 'schizophrenia, chronic undifferentiated type compensated residual,' which meant that he had been schizophrenic 'at one time' but was not 'actively schizophrenic' at the time of the diagnosis. Counsel knew that the psychiatrist had prescribed Pruitt Trilafon, an anti-psychotic medication," Tinder wrote.

The defense's own expert recommended Pruitt be evaluated by an expert in psychosis, "But trial counsel did not contact such an expert to have Pruitt evaluated, and counsel offered no reason for failing to do so," he wrote. “… Pruitt has shown that he was prejudiced by counsel’s ineffectiveness.”
The case is Tommy R. Pruitt v. Ron Neal, Superintendent, Indiana State Prison, 13-1880.


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