‘Vigilante’ who killed 2 trying to ‘clean up drug problem’ loses appeal

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A man who murdered two people in a victim’s home after telling police he wanted to help “clean up the drug problem” in a southern Indiana county got no relief from his convictions or 121-year prison sentence on appeal Friday.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s conviction and the sentence imposed in Joe Paul Hambel v. State of Indiana18A-CR-686. Hambel was convicted of illegally entering the Salem home of Valerie Dicus and fatally shooting her and her boyfriend, Joe Hobson, in the early-morning hours of on Aug. 20, 2016. The night before, he had spoken with law enforcement officers about wanting to help clean up the drug problem in Washington County.

A jury convicted Hambel as charged. On appeal, he claimed the Washington Circuit Court abused its discretion in sentencing him and in rejecting his motion for a mistrial. The latter argument arose after a juror shared with other jurors his wife’s views of Hambel. The juror’s wife and Hambel had been schoolmates and friends, the juror said.

Ultimately, Juror 2 was removed based on the extrajudicial communications, but Washington Circuit Judge Larry Medlock denied the mistrial motion. Medlock found that anything jurors might have heard from Juror 2 was harmless, and may even have helped Hambel’s case, since the juror’s wife said the crimes Hambel was accused of wasn’t reflective of the person she knew.

The COA affirmed the trial court Friday, finding no abuses of discretion. The panel also rejected Hambel’s appellate claim that jurors began deliberating before the close of evidence, which the trial court found had not happened.

Judge Edward Najam wrote for the panel that also rejected Hambel’s plea for a lighter sentence on the bases that he had no prior criminal history, was the father of two children, and had been diagnosed with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Hambel characterizes his character as 'excellent. … However, as the State points out, the nature of the offenses supports the 121-year sentence in that Hambel: planned the murders; shot Dicus in the head from close range; shot Hobson six times; and threatened to kill (a friend) if he told anyone about the murders,” Najam wrote.

“As for his character, Hambel may have been motivated to commit these murders by his concern about the drug problem in Washington County and his interest in helping law enforcement,” Najam continued. “But when he became a vigilante and took the law into his own hands, he displayed a blatant disrespect for the law, which reflects poorly on his character. We cannot say that Hambel’s sentence is inappropriate in light of the nature of the offenses and his character.”

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