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COA affirms 65-year sentence for man who killed officer

May 16, 2017

The Dearborn Circuit Court did not err in imposing a 65-year sentence on a man convicted of felony murder after he shot and killed a deputy sheriff in the line of duty, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Tuesday.

In Tommy R. Pruitt v. State of Indiana, 15A05-1606-CR-1235, Morgan County Deputy Sheriff Daniel Starnes noticed Tommy Pruitt driving erratically, so he initiated a traffic stop and obtained Pruitt’s information. Starnes then learned about a recent robbery that suggested Pruitt might have been in possession of stolen weapons, and when Starnes approached Pruitt’s car the second time, Pruitt opened fire.

Starnes was shot five times and eventually died. Pruitt was charged and convicted of murder, attempted murder, possession of a handgun without a license, resisting law enforcement and four counts of receiving stolen property. After the jury recommended the death penalty, the Dearborn Circuit Court imposed a death penalty sentence for murder and sentenced Pruitt to an aggregate of 115 years for the remaining charges.

After moving through the state courts, Pruitt was granted a conditional writ of habeas corpus in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which vacated the death penalty after finding Pruitt had demonstrated that he was intellectually disabled and, thus, constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty. The state was ordered to either initiate a new penalty-phase proceeding or release Pruitt, so the case was remanded to the trial court for resentencing on the murder conviction in April 2016.

Pruitt asked the trial court to consider and take judicial notice of the entire record, including the post-conviction proceedings, to find intellectual disability and mental illness as mitigating circumstances. The trial court reviewed the existing records from 2003 to 2016, and also considered the nature of Starnes’ murder, Pruitt’s criminal history and his post-sentence behavior as aggravating factors.

After giving “due consideration and weight” to Pruitt’s mental health, the Dearborn Superior Court resentenced Pruitt to the maximum enhanced term of 65 years for murder, with credit for time served, and ordered that sentence to be served consecutively with the 115-year sentence imposed for his previous convictions.

On appeal, Pruitt first argued because he committed his crime in June 2001, his enhanced sentence violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004) because “his Sixth Amendment right to have the facts supporting the enhancement of his sentence tried to a jury was violated.”

But Judge James Kirsch, writing for a unanimous panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals, said Tuesday Pruitt had forfeited his Blakely argument because he did not raise such an argument during his resentencing hearings. Further, the trial court would have imposed the same 65-year-sentence had it considered only the aggravators that comply with Blakely, Kirsch said, so the court did not err in its sentencing.

The appellate panel also rejected Pruitt’s argument that his sentence for murder was inappropriate, finding the trial court “properly determined that Pruitt deliberately elected to shoot Deputy Starnes … and was fully award of the wrongfulness of his conduct.”

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