Teen convicted of murder wins resentencing due to ineffective counsel

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A man who as a 16-year-old received a 181-year sentence for murder is entitled to a new sentencing hearing. The Indiana Court of Appeals concluded the Lake County teen was denied effective trial counsel during his sentencing hearing.

Donnell Wilson grew up in an “urban war zone” in Gary, according to the COA’s Thursday  opinion in Donnell Wilson v. State of Indiana, 18A-PC-3041. During his childhood, Wilson was under the threat of serious injury and death almost every day. When he was not yet 10 years old, Wilson saw another child get shot in the head. He also saw two friends get shot, was present when his home was firebombed, and had been shot at least twice.

As a result of his surroundings, Wilson developed a “war zone mentality” of survival characterized by hypervigilance, and he developed post-traumatic stress disorder at a young age. Wilson eventually became affiliated with several gangs including the Get Fresh Boys and Tre 7.

At the age of 16 in 2013, Wilson shot another teen in the head. A boy walking with the victim at the time of the crime was also shot and killed by Wilson’s friend. Gangs that Wilson belonged to were rivals with the Bottom Side gang, to which the victims belonged. Before the shootings, Wilson had encountered another boy and stolen his headphones after flashing his gun and harassing him.

Wilson was charged with two counts of murder, Class B felony armed robbery and Class D felony conspiracy to commit criminal gang activity. The state also sought criminal gang activity sentence enhancements for the murder and robbery charges, resulting in an aggregate 181-year sentence for the crimes.

After the Indiana Supreme Court denied his petition to transfer, Wilson filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that his sentence and enhancement were unconstitutional and that he was denied the effective assistance of trial and appellate counsel.

Wilson’s appellate counsel did not hire a mental health expert to examine Wilson, nor did he consider challenging the constitutionality of Wilson’s sentence based on Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). Appellate counsel further admitted that he decided against raising an abuse of discretion argument regarding sentencing because the trial court frequently mentioned Wilson’s young age during sentencing. He also admitted that he should have raised an argument that the sentence was inappropriate pursuant to Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B).

A psychologist’s evaluation concluded that Wilson would be a good candidate for rehabilitation after the age of 25, that he had PTSD, and he was not fully capable of appreciating the consequences of his behavior based on his life experiences. Wilson was also found to be immature for his age, impulsive, poorly educated, unsocialized, and mildly paranoid.

Another psychologist who concluded Wilson’s prospects for rehab would be good testified that during the crimes, Wilson was in a state of hypervigilance and that although the victims had not pulled out their guns, Wilson was anticipating that they would and therefore took pre-emptive action to protect himself.

Regardless, the trial court denied Wilson’s petition for post-conviction relief. But the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding Wilson was denied effective assistance of trial counsel with respect to his sentencing.

“We find that Miller applies to sentences for juveniles that amount to a life sentence, regardless of the label applied by the trial court or the State,” the appellate panel wrote. “In other words, if the effect of a sentence is that the juvenile will remain in prison for the rest of his days, with no meaningful opportunity to gain early release based on demonstrated rehabilitation, then that defendant has the right to a Miller sentencing hearing.”

In reviewing requirements of Miller, the appellate court noted that merely acknowledging a defendant’s youth is not enough. It also noted that Wilson’s attorney presented no evidence on his behalf during sentencing, and his argument comprised just two pages of a 767-page transcript.

“… [And] while counsel mentions Wilson’s youth, there was absolutely no argument or evidence regarding the significance of youth and its attendant characteristics, much less Wilson’s particular characteristics,” Judge John Baker wrote. “We have little difficulty concluding that this hearing did not meet the requirements of Miller.”

The appellate court further noted that Wilson’s trial attorney admitted that Miller wasn’t on his “radar” during the sentencing hearing, and that he did nothing different to prepare for the juvenile’s sentencing hearing than he would have for an adult.

That coupled with the trial attorney’s failure to present any evidence related to youth and its attendant characteristics or to Wilson’s own youth, environment, mental health, good character, or prospects of rehabilitation, resulted in a hearing that was deficient and noncompliant with Miller, the appellate court concluded.

“We find that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, Wilson would have received a lesser sentence,” the appellate court wrote.

It therefore reversed and remanded with instructions to vacate Wilson’s sentences and to hold a new sentencing hearing that complies with Miller.

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