Appellate court affirms use of state’s jury instruction on motive in partial decapitation case

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A pattern jury instruction on motive used in a murder case adequately equipped the jury to perform its role in convicting a man who tried to decapitate a woman he killed, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled.

Jesse Mathews argued to the appellate court that the Clay Circuit Court was wrong in declining to use his proposed jury instruction in the case of Jesse L. Mathews v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-2229. In that case, Mathews was charged and ultimately convicted of murdering Virginia “Dee” Myrtle in 2016 and attempting to cut off her head.

Myrtle, who for days did not respond to messages and did not appear for a previously arranged visit with her incarcerated son, was eventually discovered by her family and friends when they searched her home. The family found Myrtle’s partially decapitated body on the floor of her bedroom, concealed under blankets and debris.

During the week prior to her death, Myrtle had spent time with Mathews in the mobile home she shared with Daniel Speck. In the days following her radio silence, Mathews came in and out of her bedroom, which usually stayed closed and locked, saying Myrtle wasn’t there.

Myrtle’s family and friends became suspicious when interacting with Mathews, specifically after noticing a “fresh cut” on his hand and spotting blood in the mobile home, among other inconsistencies.

A medical examiner later determined Myrtle had been killed by two gunshots to the head from a small caliber weapon, which was never located, and the attempts to sever her head occurred post-mortem. DNA testing revealed that a mixture of Mathews and Myrtle’s DNA profiles had contributed to genetic material found on the handle of a saw found in her neck, a stethoscope in the room and a roll of tape.

For his part, Mathews argued the court should have stuck with its own proposed jury instruction, which read: “Motive is what causes a person to act. Motive is not an element of the crime and therefore does not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, presence of motive may tend to establish guilt, and absence of motive may tend to establish innocence. You may therefore give its presence or absence the weight you believe it should have as evidence.”

Instead, the court accepted the state’s proposal to use Indiana’s pattern jury instruction: “Motive is what causes a person to act. The State is not required to prove a motive for the crime charged.”

Ultimately, the COA concluded that both the court and the state’s instructions would have produced the same verdict. Specifically, it noted that the trial court’s original proposed instruction correctly stated the law and that the state didn’t dispute that sufficient evidence existed regarding motive to support giving the instruction.

Asking then whether the substance of the trial court’s original instruction was covered by other instructions, the COA looked to Cook v. State, 544 N.E.2d 1359 (Ind. 1989).

“In Cook, the Indiana Supreme Court determined that a motive instruction based on the pattern jury instruction was sufficient, and Cook’s more elaborate instruction, although ‘even-handed,’ did not require reversal of the jury’s verdict,” Senior Judge Randall Shepard wrote. “That reasoning applies here.”

Additionally, the COA found the jury received ample information about motive and could weigh the evidence accordingly. As such, the appellate court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion by choosing to give the pattern jury instruction on motive over the instruction it originally proposed.

Neither did the trial court abuse its discretion in excluding testimony from one of Myrtle’s friends, who attempted to contact a police officer with information about Myrtle’s murder. The friend claimed an unknown woman had told her a man named Craig Wilson was the real killer.

“(Jamia) Keuthan’s testimony did not tend to make a fact — the police’s allegedly unreasonable failure to investigate other suspects — more or less probable because there is no evidence that the detective or any other officer received her information about the unknown woman who had implicated Wilson,” Shepard wrote. “Keuthan was unsure if she had called the correct number, and the detective did not recall receiving a call from her during the relevant period of time. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding this evidence.”

The appellate panel further found that Wilson’s statement during cross-examination that he would take a polygraph test to prove he didn’t kill Myrtle did not make a fair trial impossible or amount to a clearly blatant violation of basic and elementary principles of due process. As such, there was no fundamental error in the trial court choosing not to order a mistrial after Wilson offered to take a polygraph.

Finally, the COA rejected Mathews’ argument that the cumulative effect of the trial court’s decisions required a reversal of his convictions because the state’s case against him was “circumstantial and weak.”

“Reversal is not warranted,” it concluded.

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