Divided Supreme Court throws out juvenile’s LWOP sentence

In a 3-2 decision Tuesday, the Indiana Supreme Court reduced a life without parole sentence for an offender convicted of murder at 17, finding LWOP sentences should be reserved for the most “heinous” juvenile offenders. The dissenting justices, however, found the nature of the crime in question warranted a life sentence.

While hanging out with friends in November 2015, 17-year-old Carltez Taylor, who had recently been released from a juvenile boot camp, loaded a magazine into a gun his friend had brought with him and stuck the gun in his waistband. Later in the evening, one of Taylor’s friends, D.G., began texting her boyfriend, J.W., which angered Taylor.

Taylor and the other teenage boys present then began discussing a plan to fight J.W. They told D.G. to convince J.W. to come over. J.W. agreed to meet D.G. on a nearby street corner, where she made him wait under the guise of waiting for her sister to arrive. But while J.W. and his nephew, T.S., were standing on the corner, Taylor emerged and opened fire with his friend’s gun, striking J.W. in the back and killing him.

Both D.G. and T.S. recognized Taylor as the shooter. After he fled the scene, the 17-year-old returned to D.G.’s house and threatened to kill her if she told anyone what she had witnessed. Taylor and the other boys then hid the gun, magazine and hoodie Taylor had been wearing, but when T.S.’s family told police that Taylor was the shooter, D.G. led detectives to the hidden evidence.

Taylor eventually turned himself in and was charged with murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Two days before trial, the state amended the conspiracy count to reflect that another teen had supplied the gun, and Taylor objected on timeliness grounds. The court overruled the objection, but did agree to bar a state’s witness from referring to Taylor by his nickname, “Looney the Shooter.”

However, the state and a witness did refer to Taylor by his nickname, though his counsel did not object.

A jury eventually found Taylor guilty of the murder and conspiracy charges and recommended a sentence of life without parole. The Vanderburgh Circuit Court agreed, making Taylor only the fifth juvenile in Indiana history to receive an LWOP sentence.

Taylor challenged his convictions and sentence on the basis of his age during oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court in June, and the divided court ultimately revised his sentence to an aggregate 80 years in a Tuesday opinion.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush, writing for the majority, first said that while the use of the name “Looney the Shooter” was improper, it did not amount to fundamental error considering the other “strong” evidence against Taylor. Rush further concluded the state’s charging amendment made two days before trial was formal, rather than substantive, because it did not prejudice Taylor’s substantial rights. The amendment also did not prejudice his defense that challenged the identity of the shooter, so it was not untimely, she said.

The chief justice wrote there was “ample circumstantial evidence” to imply a conspiracy to murder J.W., including Taylor’s discussions with the other teenage boys about fighting J.W., D.G.’s agreement to convince J.W. to come over and wait for her “sister,” and the teens’ efforts to hide the evidence after the shooting. The court also left Taylor’s 35-year concurrent sentence on the conspiracy charge intact.

However, the majority of justices ultimately chose to lessen Taylor’s murder sentence to 80 years, considering the immaturity that accompanied Taylor’s age and the inability he would have to improve his character if he never had the opportunity to get out of prison. Additionally, compared to the “drawn out” nature of the murder in Conley v. State, 972 N.E.2d 864, 880 (Ind. 2012) — the only juvenile LWOP case the court has upheld — J.W.’s death was “nearly instantaneous.”

“Our collective judgment is that Taylor’s character and the nature of his offense — grievous as it was — do not warrant making him Indiana’s fifth juvenile sentenced to a guaranteed death in prison,” Rush wrote.

The court’s decision was unanimous except on the central issue of whether the LWOP sentence should be upheld. Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, writing in a dissenting and concurring opinion joined by Justice Mark Massa, said Taylor’s actions reflected a disregard for human life, and his past criminal history did not support his argument for a more lenient sentence on the grounds of his character.

“…I disagree that Conley set a floor below which any juvenile whose offense is thought to be any less monstrous will obtain 7(B) relief,” Slaughter wrote. “That is the trend and, I fear, the implication of today’s decision. As the Court recognizes, the point of rule 7(B) is to ‘leaven outliers,’ to not achieve some perceived correct sentence, whatever that means.”

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