7th Circuit denies relief for man who killed stepmom at 17

A 17-year-old whose jailhouse confession to his mother that he killed his stepmother was secretly recorded by detectives, who testified about the incriminating statement at his trial, lost his federal habeas appeal Monday after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his sentence.

Arthur John Bryant was convicted of the murder his stepmother, Carol Bryant, who was found dead in January 2000. She had been reported missing the morning after her husband, Arthur’s father, Lee, came home from work on Jan. 4, 2000, and found both Arthur and Carol gone from their Harrison County home. Arthur had left a note saying he was spending the night at a friend’s house.

Also missing was Carol’s car, which the younger Bryant had stolen, along with her jewelry that he pawned or gave away, according to the record. He eventually abandoned the car on a rural road, where police found Carol’s body in the trunk wrapped in a comforter. She had been strangled, and police also found Arthur’s blood-stained jeans in the trunk.

Arthur was arrested Jan. 8 in a nearby town. He was allowed, as a juvenile in state custody, to meet with his mother, Kristi, to consult with her before waiving his rights.

“Sheriff’s Detectives Richard Bauman and William Whelan secretly eavesdropped on the conversation using a hidden recording device. They overheard Bryant tell his mother: ‘I told dad I had a problem and if he didn’t take care of it, I would, and I did,’” Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the panel in Arthur J. Bryant v. Richard Brown, 15-3144.     

Nevertheless, the 7th Circuit cited “a mountain of evidence pointing to Arthur’s guilt.” While the admission of his confession violated his statutory right to parental consultation, it did not give rise to habeas relief, which raised the same issues as his unsuccessful post-conviction relief proceedings in state court.

Jurors, for instance, heard an acquaintance of the victim testify that Arthur told her he would kill his stepmother before his 18th birthday. The jury also learned that he had a criminal record, had stolen his mother’s vehicle, threatened to kill her, and had choked her and chased her with a baseball bat.

The jury found him guilty of murder, theft and obstruction of justice, which was affirmed on appeal.

In his unsuccessful PCR petition and the instant habeas case, Arthur alleged five errors by his trial attorney — failure to object to a second deputy’s testimony about his incriminating statement; failure to impeach or object to testimony of two witnesses; opening the door to evidence about Arthur’s violence and threats against his mother; and failure to interview a witness whose testimony regarding his father’s alleged abuse of his mother would have supported the defense theory that Arthur’s father was the killer.

“The trial judge was not persuaded by these arguments. Neither was the Indiana Court of Appeals,” Sykes wrote. “Bryant then sought federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, reiterating the same claims. The district court denied relief, and we affirm the judgment. The state appellate court reasonably applied Strickland and Brady.”

Sykes wrote for a panel of two, joined by Judge Frank Easterbrook. The court explained in a footnote that Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who retired Sept. 2, did not participate in the decision.

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