Justices affirm consecutive LWOP sentences

The Indiana Supreme Court until Tuesday had never directly addressed the issue of whether two sentences of life imprisonment without parole can be imposed consecutively under Indiana law. The justices decided today that I.C. 35-50-1-2(c) permits it.

Two years after being released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence for murder, Steven Clippinger murdered his brother Matthew and Matthew’s wife, Lisa. Matthew Clippinger was angry his brother took a revolver from him and refused to give it back because Steven Clippinger was prohibited from possessing firearms.

Clippinger was convicted of two counts of murder and of being a serious violent felon in possession of a firearm. He was ordered to serve two life sentences without parole consecutively and an additional 20 years on the firearm conviction.

The Supreme Court remanded his case to the trial court on direct appeal so that the trial court could make specific findings in accordance to the four factors described in Harrison v. State, 644 N.E.2d 1243 (Ind. 1995) and Pittman v. State, 885 N.E.2d 1246 (Ind. 2008). On remand, the trial court imposed the same sentence.

Clippinger argued the trial court abused its discretion in imposing consecutive life sentences under I.C. 35-50-1-2(c). He likened the sentence to a death sentence, which the justices recently held that consecutive death sentences violate that statute.

“In short, Indiana’s criminal sentencing and parole schemes support reading ‘terms of imprisonment’ in Section 2(c) to permit the imposition of consecutive life sentences without parole,” Justice Mark Massa wrote. He pointed to the use by legislators of the phrase “term of life imprisonment,” noting there are no Indiana criminal statutes referring to the death penalty as a “term” of imprisonment.

The justices noted that although the revised order from the trial court contained section headings consistent with the four elements outlined in Lewis with regards to sentencing someone to life without parole, the content within the order remained inadequate.

Instead of remanding the case, the Supreme Court reweighed the proper aggravating and mitigating circumstances independently and affirmed the sentence. They found in aggravation Clippinger’s previous murder conviction and that he committed another murder. They found no statutory factors in mitigation, and held the non-statutory mitigating factors were insufficient to overcome the aggravators. The justices imposed the two consecutive sentences of life in prison without possibility of parole and affirmed the 20-year-sentence for being a serious violent felon in possession of a firearm.

The case is Steven Clippinger v. State of Indiana, 71S00-1510-LW-590.

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