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Jury instruction splits Supreme Court

January 25, 2016

Jury instructions that included the interpretation from an appellate ruling split the Indiana Supreme Court as to when trial courts should look beyond the statute.

Shane Keller appealed his two convictions of Class B felony burglary because the jury instruction expanded the definition of “dwelling” and invaded the province of the jury. Keller was convicted of taking possessions from a farm house that belonged to the Hardwick family. Although the family was living elsewhere while the house was being renovated, they stored many of their belongings there.

In arguments over how the jury instructions should define “dwelling,” the prosecution convinced the trial court to include language from an Indiana Court of Appeals opinion. Washington Superior Judge Frank Newkirk Jr. gave instructions that included the statutory definition (“… a dwelling is defined as a building, structure, or other enclosed place, permanent or temporary, movable or fixed, that is a person’s home or place of lodging”) and added language from White v. State, 846 N.E.2d 1026, 1031 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006), which expanded the definition (“Any place where a person keeps personal items with the intent to reside in the near future is considered a dwelling.”).

Before the Supreme Court, the defendant argued that the inclusion of the Court of Appeals ruling restricted the jury’s discretion in applying the statutory definition of “dwelling” and it misled the jury by encouraging it to single out certain facts while ignoring others.

The majority agreed, directing the trial court to change the two Class B felony burglary convictions to Class C felony burglary convictions and resentence accordingly in Shane Keller v. State of Indiana, 88S04-1506-CR-354.

Justices Brent Dickson, Robert Rucker and Steven David found language from appellate decisions is not necessarily appropriate for jury instructions. The majority held the opinion from White addressed the sufficiency of evidence and not the facts of the case, which are reserved for the jury. Therefore White did not justify the instruction.
 
Justice Mark Massa dissented, in which Chief Justice Loretta Rush joined.  

“In White, our Court of Appeals, in no uncertain terms, identified a set of circumstances where a ‘dwelling’ would exist, even though that set of circumstances was not identified within the statutory definition,” Massa wrote. “The trial court thus made the judgment call that White constituted an addition to the law in this area, and instructed the jury accordingly; I see no compelling reason to reverse the trial court for its handling of the situation.”
 

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