The justices of the Indiana Supreme Court have reversed the denial of post-conviction relief to a man convicted of attempted murder and attempted burglary, holding that because the man maintained his innocence even as he pleaded guilty, the trial court erroneously denied his relief.
In November 2010, 18-year-old Demajio Ellis and his 16-year-old cousin, Shawn Alexander, were charged with four Class A felonies on two counts of attempted murder and two counts of attempted robbery resulting in serious bodily injury. The charges stemmed from an incident in which the two teenagers choked and slashed the throats of two other young men and stole a pocket knife before fleeing the scene.
Ellis entered a plea agreement with the state that called for him to plead guilty to all four charges, and although he did so, Ellis also told the St. Joseph Superior Court “I didn’t do nothing, you know, sir. I was involved to the point that I did hit somebody, but I didn’t cut nobody. I did not rob nobody, sir.” Further, Ellis told the court that he advised his cousin not to assault the victims.
Ellis again pleaded guilty but maintained his innocence at a sentencing hearing in 2011, indicating that he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea. However, the 18-year-old eventually changed his mind and he was sentenced to an aggregate 40 years executed. Alexander slashed the two victims’ throats, according to the court record in his case, and he pleaded guilty to the two attempted murder counts and lesser charges. He was sentenced in 2011 to 116 years in prison with 32 years suspended to probation, and the Department of Correction shows his earliest possible release date is in March 2061.
Two years later, Ellis filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, which was later amended by counsel, arguing that his guilty plea was not entered knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily, lacked a factual basis and was erroneously accepted in light of his maintained innocence. Both the post-conviction court and Indiana Court of Appeals decided that Ellis should be denied relief, but the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court disagreed Thursday, reversing the trial court’s opinion in a unanimous decision.
Ellis’ appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court focused only on the assertion that the trial court erroneously accepted his guilty plea when he repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. Although Ellis did not challenge the factual basis for his plea before the court, Justice Robert Rucker noted Thursday that the state presented no evidence establishing the elements of the crime, and Ellis was never asked to affirm the truth of the allegations against him. Thus, the evidence rests solely on the strength of Ellis’ testimony and his admission of guilt.
Additionally, Rucker wrote that although it was established that Alexander “took a substantial step toward the act of murder,” Ellis’ mere presence at the scene is not enough to prove that he aided the crime of attempted murder with “specific intent that the killing occur,” as required under Bethel v. State, 730 N.E.2d 1242, 1246 (Ind. 2000). Thus, the factual basis for Ellis’ plea was incomplete.
Further, relying on Ross v. State, 456 N.E.2d 420, 423 (Ind. 1983), Rucker noted that “a judge may not accept a plea of guilty when the defendant both pleads guilty and maintains his innocence at the same time.” Thus, because Ellis maintained his innocence both at his plea hearing and at sentencing, Rucker wrote that the St. Joseph Superior Court erroneously denied his petition for relief, and the case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
The case is Demajio Ellis v. State of Indiana, 71S05-1606-PC-360.