COA reverses murderer’s post-conviction relief

Post-conviction relief was revoked from a man convicted of murder and sentenced to 141 years in prison after the Indiana Court of Appeals found res judicata barred him from making a claim for relief.   

Matthew Stidham was twice convicted in 31-year-old Daniel Barker’s 1991 kidnapping and murder. Barker was beaten and stabbed 47 times and thrown into a river after Stidham and several of his friends began attacking Barker at his apartment after horseplay gone wrong. The group, including then 17-year-old Stidham, gagged Barker, loaded him into a van, drove him to a secluded area where he was thrown into the Mississinewa River.

Stidham received a 141-year sentence and eventually petitioned for post-conviction relief in February 2016, proposing findings of fact and conclusions of law that concluded his sentence should be ordered reduced to time served based on his exemplary behavior and progress while in prison.

In March, a Delaware Circuit judge re-sentenced Stidham to consecutive terms of 60, 50 and 20 years for his murder, robbery and criminal confinement convictions in the killing. Stidham’s final conviction for Class C Felony battery was suspended, the remainder of that eight-year sentence ordered to be served under supervised probation. A day after the trial court ordered Stidham released, the Court of Appeals granted the state’s motion to stay the order.

On appeal, the state contended that Stidham was erroneously granted post-conviction relief and that the challenge of his sentence is barred by res judicata.

Stidham argued that his direct appeal addressed whether double jeopardy barred some of his sentences and whether his sentence was unreasonable. He also argued that no claim was made that his sentence was unconstitutional.

But the appellate court found that Stidham did not allege that he filed a petition for sentence modification or that he had the consent of the prosecuting attorney as required under Ind. Code § 35-38-1-17 at the time his petition was filed in February 2016.

“Based upon the arguments in his 1993 brief and in his petition for postconviction relief, we conclude that the controversy adjudicated by the Indiana Supreme Court in 1994 determined this issue and that the doctrine of res judicata precludes Stidham’s claim,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote in the Thursday opinion.

“We cannot say that Stidham filed a proper modification of his sentence pursuant to Ind. Code § 35-38-1-17(k) or that the post-conviction court had the authority to modify the sentence.”

The appellate court held that the post-conviction court had no authority to modify the petitioner’s sentence following the time limit in Ind. Code § 35-38-1-17, “in light of the fact that the post-conviction rules do not provide for modification of a sentence which has been established by the Legislature as appropriate for the offense and which has been found to be constitutional.”

Judge Melissa May wrote separately that she was “constrained to concur” with the majority’s determination that the doctrine of res judicata prohibits the appellate court from reconsidering the appropriateness of Stidham’s sentence.

“Our understanding of juvenile offenders and of the factors to consider when determining an appropriate sentence for juveniles have changed greatly in the twenty-five years since seventeen-year-old Stidham received his 141-year sentence,” May wrote. “Thus, were we able to consider the merits of Stidham’s argument, it may be that his 141-year sentence is inappropriate in light of his offenses and character.”

However, May noted that Stidham challenged his sentence on Eighth Amendment grounds in his 1993 appellate brief and the high court addressed his sentencing arguments, leaving no place for the appellate court to serve as a “coordinate court.”

For the foregoing reasons, the appellate court reversed Stidham’s grant of post-conviction relief in State of Indiana v. Matthew Stidham, 18A02-1701-PC-68.

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