Reversal: Inmate denied DOC manual gets new trial

An inmate’s claims he was denied a fair trial can move forward now that the Indiana Court of Appeals has concluded the state’s failure to provide him with an Indiana Department of Corrections professional conduct manual left him unable to prepare a proper defense against an officer who shoved him.

Michael Hickingbottom was charged with Level 5 felony battery resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer after a physical altercation with Department of Corrections officer Larrie Fleenor regarding the use of Hickingbottom’s meal card.

Initially representing himself, Hickingbottom was denied a request of the DOC’s “rulebook” to determine whether a witness’s testimony was correct regarding the policies and procedures of the facility and its training tactics for DOC officers. The state responded that it wasn’t sure if such a manual existed, and later informed the trial court that one did not and therefore would not admit such a manual into evidence.

However, during cross-examination, the witness revealed that information regarding professional conduct for the facility’s officers was included in the training policies and procedures. He did not deny a rulebook’s existence. 

Hickingbottom thus moved for mistrial, arguing that he was unable to properly cross-examine the witness as to whether Fleenor had improperly acted during altercation when he shoved Hickingbottom, and therefore was unable to adequately prepare a defense and was being denied a fair trial. His motion was denied, and Hickingbottom was ultimately found guilty. Hickingbottom was further denied all of his subsequent motions to correct error and motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence that the manual did exist.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals determined that such a manual did exist and that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion for mistrial in Michael Hickingbottom v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-627.

“Although the State represented that a manual detailing the use of force by DOC officers did not exist, the manual is referenced specifically, and included in part, on the DOC website,” Judge James Kirsch wrote for the court.

The appellate court concluded that at all pertinent times, the manual existed and was publicly available online at https://www.in.gov/idoc/2830.htm. It further found that although the state may not have known of the existence of the manual prior to the trial, the witness’s testimony confirmed the existence of the manual during trial and established that DOC officers received training on when the use of force is appropriate.

The appellate court concluded that the manual was critical to Hickingbottom’s self-defense claim, and that the state’s failure to produce it affected the outcome of Hickingbottom’s trial and undermined confidence in the outcome.

“The manual was material to a determination of Hickingbottom’s guilt because his claim of self defense rested on an assertion that Officer Fleenor acted unlawfully through his aggressive physical confrontation and the use of a racial slur toward Hickingbottom,” Kirsch continued.

“The failure of the State to provide Hickingbottom with the manual probably impacted the jury’s deliberations because the jury was not given the most important evidence regarding Hickingbottom’s self-defense claim. Without the manual, Hickingbottom had no ability to substantiate his self-defense claim because it necessarily rested on proof that Officer Fleenor violated the manual’s use of force provisions when dealing with Hickingbottom and, therefore, acted unlawfully.”

It therefore concluded that no other remedy other than a mistrial could cure the error, as the trial was almost complete at the time the testimony revealed the manual existed.

Finding the state’s failure to be “so prejudicial that Hickingbottom was placed in a position of grave peril to which he should not have been subjected,” the appellate court reversed his conviction and remanded for a new trial with instructions for the DOC to produce the manual to the state before any subsequent proceedings take place, so that Hickingbottom can review and utilize it.

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