Justices: Trial court’s threats of contempt abuse of discretion

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Indiana Supreme Court justices have reversed a post-conviction court’s ruling after agreeing it abused its discretion by using heavy-handed threats of contempt that prevented an attorney from making an offer of proof.

Anthony Bedolla was convicted of murder, but later found a jail cellmate who revealed information that could exonerate him. As Bedolla’s counsel arranged to have cellmate Miguel Barragan-Lopez testify at an evidentiary hearing, he was moved from Indianapolis to Leitchfield, Kentucky, a week before the hearing.

Bedolla’s counsel then struggled to secure the testimony based on Barragan-Lopez’s hesitancy and other factors, and the state offered objections before the Marion Superior Court at a status hearing. After Bedolla’s counsel explained the roadblocks she was facing, she sought leave from the court to try again to secure the testimony.

But the post-conviction court refused to hear argument from Bedolla’s attorney and denied her an opportunity to make an offer of proof, subsequently ending discovery, closing the evidence, and demanding proposed findings and conclusions from the parties.

When Bedolla’s counsel attempted to make her case and develop a record for appeal, the Marion Superior Court silenced her with threats of contempt by saying: “Counsel, if you don’t move away from the table right now, I’m going to ask the deputy to put you in the back. All right. I have told you three times your case is over. … If you have a difficulty with that, then you can always go to the higher court.”

Bedolla filed, and a motion to correct error that was denied, arguing the post-conviction court erred in denying his counsel the chance to make an offer of proof and in refusing to hear counsel’s argument concerning his right under the Trial Rules to request sanctions against Barragan-Lopez.

The Indiana Court of Appeals concluded there was no abuse of discretion in not sanctioning Barragan-Lopez and concluded that his testimony would not amount to newly discovered evidence entitling Bedolla to a new trial.

However, a majority of Supreme Court justices concluded the post-conviction court abused its discretion by preventing and denying Bedolla’s attorney the opportunity to make an offer of proof concerning Barragan-Lopez’s anticipated testimony.

It noted that the state did not oppose the deposition, made no argument against Bedolla’s counsel that she abused the discovery process, or that it would be prejudiced by allowing another deposition.

“Yet the post-conviction court, after hearing only the State’s argument, refused to listen to Counsel’s offer of proof and warned that a deputy would remove her if she did not yield her spot at counsel’s table,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the majority. “In our view, the post-conviction court ‘respond[ed] to [this] factual context in an unreasonable manner.’”

The majority further noted that a court cannot “ensure fundamentally fair proceedings that ‘promote discovery of truth,’ without listening to arguments from both parties.” Although trial court judges may be afforded ample latitude in controlling the proceedings, it continued, the case at hand stepped over the line.

“The post-conviction court’s refusal to hear further argument and its intemperate demeanor amount to an abuse of discretion — they even undermine the fundamental fairness the Indiana Constitution demands,” the majority wrote.

Thus, the high court concluded that Bedolla may proceed with the deposition based the essential information presented for an offer of proof in the record in Anthony Bedolla v. State of Indiana, 19S-PC-328, reversing and remanding the lower court’s ruling.

“Based on conversations with Barragan-Lopez, Bedolla and his Counsel anticipate that Barragan-Lopez will testify that (witness Sarai) Solano recanted her testimony that Bedolla murdered (Erick) Espinoza and she identified Jose Reyes as the killer. Testimony that, if true, would exonerate one man and implicate another certainly meets the low bar for relevance under our evidentiary rules,” the high court wrote.  

“As for admissibility, Bedolla anticipated the testimony could be admissible as a Statement Against Interest under Rule 804(b)(3). Based on this piecemeal offer to prove — coupled with the fact that both parties and the post-conviction court agreed to the deposition — we remand the matter with instructions to proceed with the deposition,” the majority concluded.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Steven David concurred, with Justice Mark Massa concurring in result. While Justice Geoffrey Slaughter concurred in part regarding the post-conviction court’s “heavy-handed” approach, he dissented in a separate opinion on the issue of Bedolla’s granted relief.

The amount of relief awarded to Bedolla exceeded the “proper and proportional” remedy for the wrongs he suffered, Slaughter argued, and was therefore unwarranted. He first dissented that the relief was more than Bedolla sought, which was to enforce the deposition subpoena by ordering sanctions against Barragan-Lopez under Indiana Trial Rule 37.

“Instead of addressing Bedolla’s request for sanctions, the Court skips over that step and orders that he be permitted to depose Barragan-Lopez,” Slaughter opined. “The Court thus says, in effect, it doesn’t matter what the trial court might conclude on remand after hearing Bedolla’s offer of proof. Bedolla gets to take the deposition no matter what. In that sense, the Court’s holding today is broader than it lets on.”

Additionally, Slaughter argued that Bedolla was seeking relief from the wrong court and that nothing in Rule 37 entitled him to an award of sanctions from the Marion Superior Court because the deponent is outside of its jurisdiction.

“He is not a party to a pending suit in Marion County, and he is physically located in another state,” Slaughter concluded. “What Bedolla should have done is sought sanctions in the court where Barragan-Lopez is in custody.”

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