Appellate court upholds murder conviction despite woman’s self-defense claim

A woman convicted of murdering a man who was harassing her failed to convince the Indiana Court of Appeals that she was acting in self-defense or that the trial court erred in making evidentiary decisions.

The case of Tanika Stewart v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-1809, began in October 2019, when Antonio Bushrod and Tanika Stewart attended a house party in Evansville. One of the hosts, Maurice McRae, testified that the men at the party were being rough toward the women and Bushrod, in particular, was being disrespectful.

Indeed, Stewart and Bushrod joked and playfully roughhoused for a while, but when Stewart rejected his sexual advances, Bushrod began to verbally harass her and grope her. Later, Bushrod and his friends began bullying, smothering, harassing and groping Stewart, who was telling the men to back up and stop touching her.

Stewart then went to the car to retrieve her handgun before returning to the group on the porch and threatening her harassers with the gun. Bushrod struck her in the face, and she shot him in the chest.

When police arrived, Stewart confessed and surrendered the gun. Bushrod later died at a hospital from gunshot wounds.

Stewart was charged with felony murder, enhanced for the use of a firearm. Police had retrieved surveillance video from neighbors that depicted the shooting and the events surrounding it, but Stewart filed a motion in limine to exclude the video for poor quality. The Vanderburgh Circuit Court eventually denied that motion during the January 2020 trial.

Also during the trial, Stewart testified in her own defense, claiming she was afraid of being raped or struck. She also tried to recount Bushrod’s “very aggressive” statements to her, but the trial court sustained an objection to those statements on hearsay grounds.

The jury was instructed on sudden heat, self-defense and voluntary manslaughter, but Stewart was convicted of felony murder and pleaded guilty to the enhancement. She was sentenced to serve 55 years in the Department of Correction.

Stewart challenged the trial court’s evidentiary rulings on appeal, first claiming the surveillance video was erroneously admitted. However, the Court of Appeals determined that argument was waived as to one video, state’s exhibit 34, because she did not object at trial and did not raise a fundamental error claim.

As for the remaining videos, state’s exhibits 43, 44 and 45, the appellate panel agreed with Stewart that “the viewer cannot definitively identify any of the persons depicted; however, we find the videos have some relevancy despite their quality and limited depictions.”

Specifically, viewers could discern an individual approaching a dark sedan belonging to Stewart, leaning into the vehicle then emerging without fully entering it. The person then walks back to the party, and a bright flash appears.

“The footage bolsters McRae’s testimony that Stewart left the porch, retrieved her gun from her vehicle, returned to the porch, where she brandished the weapon and shot Bushrod,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote. “Accordingly, we conclude that the videos were relevant and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting them.”

Further, even if the videos were admitted in error, the error was harmless “(i)n light of the considerable evidence of Stewart’s guilty, including her on-scene admission of guilt and McRae’s testimony … .”

The COA also upheld the exclusion of testimony about Bushrod’s statements to Stewart, finding that claim was waived because Stewart did not make an offer of proof.

Waiver notwithstanding, the panel agreed with Stewart that the statements were improperly excluded because “in attempting to introduce Bushrod’s statements, Stewart did not seek to prove their truth; rather, Stewart sought to shed insight into her own state of mind — she was fearful and wanted to establish her perceived justification for shooting Bushrod and to support her self-defense claim.” Even so, the error was harmless in light of the other corroborating evidence.

Finally, Stewart argued the state failed to sufficiently rebut her self-defense claim. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

“McRae testified that, after Bushrod and his friends groped, taunted, and hit Stewart on the porch, Stewart was able to leave the group of men. McRae observed as Stewart went to her vehicle, retrieved her firearm, and returned to the porch, where the men resumed their aggression toward her. Bushrod then struck Stewart, and minutes later, Stewart shot Bushrod,” Tavitas wrote.

“… Bushrod’s behavior was, no doubt, reprehensible, and it is undisputed that he struck Stewart’s face. We find, however, that under the circumstances of this case, Stewart was not justified in her use of deadly force.”

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