Justices toss meth conviction, advise courts on indigent depositions

A Huntington County man’s conviction for dealing meth and 40-year sentence were reversed Thursday by the Indiana Supreme Court, which remanded the case for a new trial and used the decision to send a message to trial courts. The court ruled the denial of depositions of state witnesses by indigent defendants must be supported in the record by findings of fact.

Thomas Hale was convicted of Class A felony dealing in methamphetamine, but he was denied the opportunity to depose two potential co-defendants who had struck plea deals with the state. Huntington Superior Judge Jeffrey R. Heffelfinger denied Hale’s motions to depose Amanda Casto and Greggory Fisher the same day the motion was filed. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Hale’s conviction, finding Hale had waived his objection when he failed to re-raise it when the co-defendants were called to testify at his trial.

But a unanimous Supreme Court found the trial court had abused its discretion by rejecting Hale’s motion to depose the co-defendants, because the denial failed to issue findings explaining the court’s rationale. Justice Mark Massa wrote for the court that denials of motions to depose must include findings addressing tests for whether the discovery request is sufficiently designated, material to the defense, and whether the state made a sufficient showing of paramount interest in non-disclosure. These tests spring from Dillard v. State, 257 Ind. 282, 291–92, 274 N.E.2d 387, 392 (1971), and Crawford v. State, 948 N.E.2d 1165, 1169 (Ind. 2011).

“Here, Hale sought to depose two State’s witnesses, after they had pleaded guilty to pending charges and were disclosed as State’s witnesses. On its face, the motion clearly satisfied the first two parts of the Dillard test: it identified the two witnesses sought to be deposed and why the proposed deponents were material to the State’s case,” Massa wrote. “And Hale even went beyond these requirements, noting how long the depositions were expected to last (a mere half-hour each), and that counsel had already coordinated a deposition time with counsel for both of the proposed deponents so that the depositions could occur on the same day, still some three weeks in advance of the date then scheduled for trial. Yet the motion was denied the same day it was filed, without explanation.

“(W)e believe that when the trial court denies an indigent defendant’s motion to conduct a deposition at public expense, the court should issue factual findings addressing each part of the Dillard/Crawford test. The trial judge is ultimately in the best position to consider the sincerity of the parties’ arguments regarding the three-part test, as well as the overall costs associated with the proposed depositions, and potential alternatives that may better promote pre-trial efficiency of the case.  But without the benefit of knowing the trial court’s rationale, our appellate courts are forced to presume that ‘exculpatory or mitigating evidence would have surfaced from the depositions sought,’” Massa wrote, citing Murphy v. State, 265 Ind. at 121, 352 N.E.2d at 483 (1976). "Specific findings by the trial court, however, should resolve that ambiguity going forward."

The case is Thomas L. Hale v. State of Indiana, 35S02-1601-CR-37. This is also the first opinion new Justice Geoffrey Slaughter has joined since taking the bench Monday.


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