Man’s sentence affirmed despite misapplication of law

June 29, 2015

A misapplication of Indiana law in setting a 10-year cap in a plea agreement for a man who admitted to multiple counts of child neglect and criminal confinement doesn’t require reversal, a divided Indiana Supreme Court held Monday.

Justices affirmed a 10-year prison sentence imposed in Larry D. Russell, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 84S01-1409-CR-583. Russell pleaded guilty to five counts of neglect of a dependent and two counts of criminal confinement, all of which were Class C felonies.

The Indiana Court of Appeals vacated Russell’s sentence sua sponte based on a misapplication of Indiana Code § 35-50-1-2(c). The appeals panel found the agreement illegal because Russell’s offenses didn’t constitute an “episode” subject to limitations imposed by the statute.

But justices saw the outcome differently. “Despite this mistake of law, we hold that Russell’s plea agreement is enforceable, because when a defendant like Russell pleads guilty knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily, and where a defendant like Russell gets the benefit of the bargain with the State when the State errs, ‘there is no compelling reason to set aside the conviction on grounds that the sentence is later determined to be invalid,’” Justice Steven David wrote for the majority, citing the language of Lee v. State, 816 N.E. 2d (Ind. 2004). Justices Brent Dickson and Robert Rucker joined the majority; Chief Justice Loretta Rush concurred in result only.

The court noted the “extreme abuse and neglect” Russell inflicted on three adopted children – abuse that the Court of Appeals criticized prosecutors for not seeking greater punishment against the defendant. But precedent required the sentence, seen as lenient in view of Russell’s crimes, be enforced.

“Because Lee requires us to uphold a sentencing provision that misstates the law, provided the defendant pleaded guilty knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily — as Russell indisputably did, and provided that the defendant benefit from the bargain when the State errs — as Russell unequivocally does, we affirm Russell’s plea agreement, notwithstanding the mistaken application  of the statutory cap contained within it.”

Justice Mark Massa dissented. “It would be one thing to tell the prosecution it must live with its mistaken understanding of our sentencing laws that led to its inappropriately lenient plea bargain for these monstrous crimes, particularly when the State joins the appellant in asking us to enforce its terms.  A deal’s a deal, after all.  But our prior holding in Lee does not compel that result — one that severely diminishes judicial review of those terms.”

Massa wrote that the trial court abused its discretion by approving an agreement that contained an error of law.

“All this is not to say the State couldn’t ultimately plead Russell to ten years, a grossly lenient yet perfectly legal sentence,” Massa wrote. “But if such an agreement is reached and accepted by the trial court, it should be the product of an informed and honest bargaining process, and not a mistake of law.”



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