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‘Meager weight’ of mitigating factors could not overcome attorney’s deficient performance

December 21, 2018

Although the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed the relationship had broken between a Fort Wayne criminal defense attorney and his client, it did not find that the 130-year sentence handed down would have been significantly less if defense counsel had offered mitigating circumstances.

Roderick Lewis was convicted in 2011 of two counts of felony murder and two counts of robbery for a 1999 stick-up of a drug house in Fort Wayne which left the 16-year-old and 14-year-old who operated the house dead. Lewis rejected plea offers because he could not understand why he was being held responsible for the murders since he did not actually shoot either victim.

At sentencing, defense attorney Jeffrey Raff only said, “Judge, I’m going to defer to Mr. Lewis if he has any comments. I don’t have anything to add.” Lewis proceeded to make a statement that spanned six pages in the court transcript.

The state, on the other hand, presented a number of witnesses, asserted several aggravating circumstances and asked the court to impose aggravated, consecutive sentences. Afterwards, the Allen Superior Court imposed the maximum 65-year sentences for the felony murder convictions and ordered them to be served consecutively.

On appeal, Lewis, with new counsel. unsuccessfully challenged the sufficiency of the evidence in Lewis v. State, No. 02A03-1202-CR-18 (Ind. Ct. App. Aug. 31, 2012), trans. denied.

Lewis then filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, arguing Raff failed to advocate on his behalf and there were several mitigating factors that should have been asserted at sentencing.

According to the trial court’s findings of facts presented at the post-conviction hearing, Raff “did nothing at sentencing.” The attorney testified he did not inquiry Lewis’ mental health, was not aware Lewis had attempted suicide in the Allen County Jail, did not ask Lewis about his upbringing or speak to relatives or friends, and did not have Lewis examined by a mental health professional. Also, he did not prepare Lewis to make a statement at sentencing.

Testimony by a psychologist and family members established that Lewis had bipolar II disorder. In addition, he grew up with a mother addicted to drugs, her boyfriends physically abused her and Lewis, and as a 9-year-old, he witnessed one boyfriend stabbing another.

The post-conviction court determined Raff erred, but concluded Lewis was not prejudiced by the alleged deficient performance because it likely did not adversely impact the outcome. The Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in Roderick Vandrell Lewis v. State of Indiana, 18A-PC-767.

The appellate panel noted Lewis helped planned the robbery, took his gun to the drug house, gave his gun to one of his cohorts and invited him to shoot one of the victims, reached for a shotgun to keep it away from one of the victims, then spent the night in the hotel “essentially celebrating and laughing about the evening’s events.”

As for his age and mental illness, the appeals court pointed out that Lewis had been a gang member for several years prior to the robbery and his behavior before, during and after the murder suggests he was in control of his faculties.

“We agree with the post-conviction court that there is not a reasonable probability that presentation of the omitted mitigating evidence would have affected Lewis’s sentence,” Judge Robert Altice, Jr., wrote for the court. “While Attorney Raff certainly should have proffered the mitigators at sentencing, the meager weight of those simply could not withstand the overwhelming weight of the aggravating circumstances.”

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