COA affirms denial of ineffective counsel PCR claim

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Tuesday the denial of a man’s successive petition for post-conviction relief, finding the man’s trial attorney’s strategy was not constitutionally ineffective.

In 1991, Steven Bethel and Curtis Crenshaw were arrested after robbing and threatening several individuals at gun point. At trial, the state alleged Bethel attempted to rob or assisted Crenshaw in attempting to rob several victims and attempted to kill or assisted Crenshaw in attempting to kill two police officers.

Bethel was ultimately convicted of two counts of attempted robbery, two counts of robbery and four counts of attempted murder, was found to be a habitual offender and received a 120-year sentence. The Indiana Supreme Court later reversed two of his attempted murder convictions, thus reducing his sentence to 102 years.

A post-conviction court then denied Bethel’s petition for post-conviction relief in 2012, a decision the COA affirmed, but he was later authorized to file a successive petition in 2016. In his successive petition, Bethel alleged ineffective assistance of counsel during his 1991 trial, but was ultimately denied relief by the post-conviction court.

On appeal, Bethel argued his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by presenting evidence and argument in support of a defense of duress even though that defense was legally unavailable in Bethel’s case. Specifically, Bethel claimed his attorney “chose to adhere to a defense that was clearly not legally available” and demonstrated he did not “know the applicable law” or “simply chose to ignore the settled law in this area.”

But the appellate court found that although Bethel’s counsel ultimately used an unsuccessful defense strategy, that was not enough to establish that his counsel was “constitutionally ineffective.” 

In review of his 1991 trial, the appellate court determined Bethel’s counsel did not raise a statutory defense of duress to “excuse otherwise criminal acts” because the attorney did not “concede that Bethel had committed any criminal acts in the first place.” Instead, Bethel’s counsel argued Bethel was not guilty of any charges as a principal actor because Crenshaw committed all offenses and because Crenshaw coerced Bethel to go along with him under the threat of death.

“Rather than displaying ignorance of the law, Bethel’s counsel clarified that his strategy was to challenge the evidence supporting the State’s case,” Senior Judge Betty Barteau wrote for the court. "He did not concede, implicitly or explicitly, that the State proved the offenses but that Bethel was not guilty due to duress.

“Counsel’s defense strategy was reasonable due to the extensive evidence that placed Bethel at the scenes of the crimes,” Barteau said.

Bethel also argued his counsel could have pursued a different strategy – specifically, challenging the on-site identifications of Bethel by witnesses – but the appellate court denied that argument as well.

“Challenging the show-up identifications would not have been a stronger or more effective strategy than the one counsel chose: attempting to show that Bethel was not guilty of the offenses because he was not the principal actor and was merely present for Crenshaw’s crimes,” Barteau wrote.

Therefore, the appellate court found Bethel failed to demonstrate that the post-conviction court erred in denying his successive petition for postconviction relief in Steven Bethel v. State of Indiana,18A-PC-117.

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