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Murder conviction after drug deal gone wrong stands

December 5, 2018

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a man’s conviction of two counts of murder despite his arguments that one of the deaths was unforeseeable at the time of the drug-deal gone wrong in South Bend.

In the middle of a drug deal including several people and more than one pound of methamphetamine, shots were fired and a shootout ensued. Joshua Sage, the supplier, was charged with two counts of felony murder after shooting and killing Damon Bethel during the exchange. A bystander at the scene, Anton James, was not a part of the meth deal, but was ultimately shot and killed during the event by shoot-out participant Benito Pedraza.

While in the hospital with gunshots wounds afterward, Sage was read his Miranda rights and consented to an interview conducted by investigators. Sage’s medication nurse informed his interviewers that she had no concerns about Sage’s ability to speak with them.

In January 2018, Sage filed a motion to suppress statements made during that interview, arguing that his injuries and the medications he received could “affect a person’s ability to give a free, voluntary and knowing statement.”

A trial court convicted Sage of two counts of felony murder for the deaths of Bethel and James. On appeal, Sage argued that the trial court erred when it denied his motion to suppress.

Specifically, Sage argues that his “rights to due process were violated because the officers did not verify that his statements were knowing and voluntary because they did not ascertain if he was under the influence or otherwise thinking clearly.”

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Sage’s motion, noting that according to Sage’s medication nurse, he was “lucid, cognizant, and alert the day he made his statement.” Under the circumstances, it also found that Sage’s statement was voluntary when he indicated his understanding before signing his Miranda waiver and held a conversational tone with officers during the hour-long interview.

“Sage does not argue on appeal that he was unaware of what he was saying when he spoke with the detectives. Indeed, Sage spoke coherently and extemporaneously throughout the interview, responded appropriately to the detective’s questions, and accurately recollected many details of the offenses,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the court. 

Sage further argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove he killed both Bethel and James.

“Here, Sage’s act of dealing methamphetamine, the underlying felony of the felony murder charge, drew Bethel and his confederates to (the scene) to attempt to rob Sage, and a gun battle ensued in which Sage shot and killed Bethel,” Riley wrote.  “Thus, there was a direct and immediate causal connection between the crime Sage was committing and the ensuing confrontation.”

“Contrary to his assertion on appeal, Sage was aware of the fact that James’s SUV was stopped in front of the home before the gun battle broke out, which he related in his statement made him nervous. As a result, it was not only reasonably foreseeable that gunfire might break out at the drug deal, but it was foreseeable to Sage that the driver of the SUV stopped out front might be shot when Sage began firing. It made no difference that it was Benny who shot James,” Riley continued.

The appellate court concluded that because James’ death was the foreseeable result of Sage’s meth dealing, there was sufficient evidence to prove Sage killed James while committing the alleged felony in Joshua Sage v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-1557.

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