7th Circuit upholds LWOP sentence for convicted murderer

An Indiana man convicted of murdering his ex-wife with a crowbar will continue to serve his life without parole sentence after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the habeas relief he sought on the basis of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

In Frederick A. Laux v. Dushan Zatecky, 16-3282, Frederick and Heidi Laux divorced in November 2001 after 11 years of marriage. After attending a social event and determining that Heidi had a new romantic partner, Laux broke into her home with a crowbar, then struck her three times with the crowbar before strangling and killing her.

A jury found Laux guilty of murder, felony murder and burglary resulting in bodily injury, and a trial court sentenced him to life without parole. After the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed Laux’s sentence on direct appeal, he filed for post-conviction relief, arguing his trial counsel was ineffective because he did not fully investigate and present mitigating evidence related to Laux’s childhood and family history.

Specifically, Laux pointed to a pre-trial report that showed his father was an alcoholic, while his mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A psychiatrist who testified during the PCR proceedings attributed Laux’s distant demeanor after the murder to his upbringing, noting that neither of his parents expressed emotion.

The trial court denied PCR relief to Laux and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that his counsel’s strategy of arguing that his divorce-related depression caused him to murder Heidi was “sound,” even if the jury did not find for him. Thus, trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to use evidence of his childhood as mitigation testimony during the penalty phase.

Laux then sought habeas relief in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, which upheld the state court’s ruling. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals followed suit on Thursday, with Judge David Hamilton noting Laux’s trial counsel reviewed expert reports, cross-examined expert witnesses and called multiple witnesses to discuss Laux’s lack of criminal history, his personality and mental state during the trial.

“The trial lawyer’s decision to leave the mitigation case at that was not objectively unreasonable under (Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 688 (1984)),” Hamilton wrote. “The mitigation evidence he presented, in fact, was enough for one Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court to have agreed that the aggravating and mitigating circumstances were in equipoise, warranting appellate intervention. But in the end, this was a minority view, and on that did not implicate Strickland.”

“…In comparison, ‘the evidence of Laux’s childhood and background fail(s) to show so much as significant hardship,’” Hamilton continued. “Since he was never ‘a victim of abuse or neglect,’ ‘was never in trouble,’ and ‘excelled in both high school and college,’ the stories of his difficult childhood were little more than ‘family anecdotes’ in the judgment of the state court.”

The circuit panel did criticize the district court for relying on Ritchie v. State, 875 N.E.2d 706, 725 (Ind. 2007), in determining what weight should be given to evidence of a difficult childhood, but ultimately found that reliance was not prejudicial.


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