The Indiana Supreme Court upheld a man’s murder conviction and sentence of life without parole after it found comments the judge made to the jury did not deprive him of a fair trial.
Austin Blaize was found guilty of murdering Terry Monier in August of 2014, and also found guilty of attempted murder, felony murder, burglary causing serious bodily injury, intimidation with a deadly weapon, pointing a firearm and carrying a handgun without a license.
In January of 2014, Blaize fired two shots at Monier, who was trying to protect his daughter, Brittany Monier, from Blaize. Brittany Monier and Blaize had a relationship but broke up, and Blaize was still calling her on the phone and generally bothering her.
During Blaize’s trial, a Verizon engineer testified about cellphone towers in Gibson County, where the murder happened and trial was being held. The engineer said sector 2 of one site of cell tower 217 covered the area the murder took place, and at the time of the murder Blaize’s cellphone was connected to that tower. Later, his cellphone was registering at a different tower away from the murder.
The state used that as evidence that Blaize was in the area at the time of the murder, not at his grandmother’s house as he claimed.
As the jury broke for lunch in the trial, the judge told the jury to stay within sector 3 of cellphone tower 217, and not be on the sector that Blaize’s cell phone was on, because there would be trouble if they were on that sector.
Blaize said that comment vouched for the credibility of the state’s evidence and discredited his alibi defense, thus seeking reversal of his conviction and remand for a new trial.
Supreme Court Justice Robert D. Rucker wrote the comment did not deprive him of a fair trial. Although Blaize waived his right to appeal that because he did not bring it up during the trial, Rucker said the doctrine of fundamental error allowed him to bring it up again.
However, Rucker said Blaize overstated his case. Rucker said the judge’s comment was probably ill advised, but did not constitute reversible error. The comment was not made during the presentation of evidence by either party or during the questioning of a witness, but during a break. Rucker said the comment did not vouch for the accuracy of the tracking data, but was an acknowledgement of the complexity of cellphone tower evidence.
Also, there was plenty of other evidence that placed Blaize at the scene and with Monier at the time of the murder. The comments may not have made a difference anyway.
The case is Austin Blaze v State of Indiana, 26S00-1410-LW-771.