Murder defendant’s trial attorney ineffective, COA rules

June 23, 2016

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the denial of a man’s post-conviction relief petition, finding his trial counsel was ineffective and his petition was not barred by laches.

Trondo Humphrey was convicted of murder in 1996. In his direct appeal, Humphrey argued the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted into evidence a statement from a witness regarding Humphrey’s participation in the murder and erred when it admonished the jury to consider the statement for impeachment purposes only. The Indiana Supreme Court held the statement was admissible for impeachment and also said that had a proper objection to the instruction been filed, the court would have had to entertain it.

In 2012, Humphrey filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief and requested counsel. With counsel, he filed an amended petition arguing his trial counsel was ineffective for a number of reasons, including not objecting to the statement correctly. The post-conviction court denied his petition and Humphrey appealed.

The trial court held that Humphrey’s petition wasn’t barred by laches, which the Court of Appeals affirmed. Judge Melissa May wrote there was no evidence that Humphrey knew post-conviction remedies were available to him. Also, the state did not meet its burden to demonstrate prejudice as a result of Humphrey’s delay.

The COA also ruled Humphrey’s counsel was ineffective because he did not object to or correct an instructional error given to the jury, which told members they were free to consider a prior inconsistent statement to both impeach and as evidence on Humphrey’s guilt or innocence. The instruction misstated the law, May wrote, and Humphrey’s counsel’s lack of action was error. His counsel also misstated the law in his closing arguments in the same way.

Humphrey’s counsel also erred in strategy. May wrote “If the decisions by Humphrey’s counsel were, as the State argues, part of a ‘strategy,’ we hold a strategy premised on allowing and making erroneous statements of law that improperly permit a jury to consider as substantive evidence of a client’s guilt a statement that was admissible only for impeachment is a strategy ‘so deficient or unreasonable as to fall outside of the objective standard of reasonableness,’” citing Autrey v. State, 700 N.E.2d 1140, 1141 (Ind. 1998).

May wrote Humphrey was prejudiced because the statement was the only evidence that specifically identified Humphrey in the murder in a case where identity is the crucial issue. The jury considered substantive evidence as the only evidence that Humphrey was the shooter in the murder.

The case is Trondo L. Humphrey v. State of Indiana, 48A02-1508-PC-1238.


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