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Admission of evidence in teen’s murder case not an abuse of discretion, COA rules

December 21, 2018

A man convicted of murder as a teen unsuccessfully argued before the Indiana Court of Appeals that evidence in his case was erroneously admitted, with the appellate court instead finding the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

In December 2015, then-17-year-old Shakur Johnson was charged with the murder of Mark Cotton. Johnson’s location was acquired from his cellphone carrier, which led police to obtain a search warrant for an apartment belonging to Kylee Weaver, Johnson’s girlfriend. During the search, police located Johnson and seized his cellphone and bullet cartridges consistent with those found at the scene.

At his subsequent trial, Johnson both filed a motion to suppress and objected to the admission of the evidence found in the apartment, as well as incriminating statements he made to his probation officer, but both motions were overruled. A jury found him guilty as charged, and Johnson was sentenced to 55 years.

On appeal, Johnson argued the admission of both the evidence seized by the search warrant as well as the incriminating statements was erroneous. Specifically, Johnson argued officers’ acquisition of his location using cellular tracking information provided by his wireless carrier was improper because no exigent circumstances existed. But the appellate court noted the small amount of information available to police at the time of the murder linked Johnson to the victim.

“We find that the circumstances in this case — a threat to the lives and safety of others and possible destruction of evidence — were sufficiently exigent circumstances under Indiana Code section 35-33-5-12(a)(2) to justify obtaining cellular location information without a court order,” Senior Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote for the court. “Johnson has not shown a violation of his federal or state constitutional rights on this basis; accordingly, the trial court’s admission of the evidence seized at Weaver’s apartment was not in error”

The court ruled similarly with respect to Johnson’s second claim regarding his incriminating statements to the probation officer. Johnson appealed the admission of his statements on two grounds: the juvenile waiver of rights statute and Indiana Evidence Rule 617.

The appellate court concluded that Johnson’s probation officer was not acting as an agent for the police, nor subjecting Johnson to an interrogation in violation of the juvenile waiver of rights statute. Instead, she Johnson that he did not have to speak with her about the issue, which he continued to do regardless.

“Finally, Evidence Rule 617 requires that statements made during custodial interrogations conducted in a place of detention in felony criminal prosecutions shall not be admitted against the defendant unless they have been recorded,” Friedlander wrote. “For reasons previously stated, Johnson’s conversation with (Lakisha) Fisher was not an interrogation, and, thus, admission of Johnson’s statements at trial do not run afoul of Rule 617.”

Therefore, the appellate court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the evidence seized at Weaver’s apartment or by admitting Johnson’s statements to his probation officer in Shakur Johnson v. State of Indiana, 27A02-1712-CR-2958.

 

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