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Justices reverse life sentence based on error by judge

June 17, 2015

The Indiana Supreme Court upheld a Gary man’s convictions related to the death of a woman he met at a bar, but it reversed the sentence of life without possibility of parole because the trial court’s sentencing order lacked a personal statement from the judge that the sentence is the appropriate one for the defendant.

Robert Lewis III convinced Jennifer Kocsis to give him a ride home from a bar. She was discovered brutally murdered the next day in a parking lot from blunt-force injuries and strangulation. She had several broken body parts and injuries, her skirt and underpants were around her knees and a hand-shaped bruise or blood stain was on her buttocks. DNA evidence could not exclude Lewis from the DNA found on the outside and inside of Kocsis’ anus.

A shoe print found on her arm matched the tread on the bottom of Lewis’ sneaker, which he burned after the murder. He was convicted of murder, murder in the perpetration of criminal deviate conduct, criminal deviate conduct and resisting law enforcement. The jury was unable to agree on a sentence, so the judge sentenced Lewis to life.

In Robert Lewis III v. State of Indiana, 45S00-1312-LW-512, the justices found sufficient evidence to prove Lewis engaged in criminal deviate conduct and there was no fundamental error by the court to omit a “reasonable theory of innocence” jury instruction under Hampton v. State, 961 N.E.2d 480 (Ind. 2012).

The justices did find that admission of testimony regarding Lewis’ prior conduct while consuming alcohol should not have been allowed as evidence of habit, but that it was harmless error based on the other evidence presented at trial.

The high court also held the sentencing order from the judge did not contain a personal statement that life without parole was an appropriate sentence, which is a violation of Harrison v. State, 644 N.E.2d 1243 (Ind. 1995), and Pittman v. State, 885 N.E.2d 1246 (Ind. 2008).  Those cases held the four things at a minimum that the sentencing order imposing a capital sentence must contain. In this instance, the judge’s order lacked the judge’s personal conclusion that the sentence is appropriate punishment for Lewis based on the crime.

The justices reversed Lewis’ sentence and ordered the trial court to issue a revised sentencing order. The justices declined to impose a term of years, as Lewis sought, finding the trial court to be in the best position to determine when a life sentence or term of years is appropriate for the crime.

 

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