As the Indiana Supreme Court takes up the question of whether a man convicted of murder should get a new trial because of misconduct by an attorney who served as jury forewoman at his trial, that attorney also is suing the state over her firing related to her conduct in the case.
The issue is at the heart of a murder appeal justices will hear next month via videoconference, Clinton Loehrlein v. State of Indiana, 20S-CR-00376.
A Vanderburgh Superior jury convicted Clinton Loehrlein of murder in the January 2017 slaying of his wife, Sherry Loehrlein, two counts of Level 1 attempted murder for attacking his daughters, two counts of Level 3 felony aggravated battery and one count of Class A misdemeanor resisting law enforcement. He was sentenced in March 2019 to 150 years in prison.
Loehrlein, whose defense team unsuccessfully pursued an insanity defense, said after the attack that he “wanted to kill his family so that they would go to heaven, then kill himself so he could join them.”
The Indiana Court of Appeals vacated Loehrlein’s conviction in February on the basis of juror misconduct by the jury forewoman, whom the appellate panel identified as L.W. She gave a false answer on a jury questionnaire that came to the attention of Loehrlein’s defense attorneys after his conviction.
The question asked potential jurors, “Have you, any of your immediate family members, or a close friend been charged with or convicted of a crime? If yes, who, when, what & where.” L.W. responded “not applicable,” even though she had been charged in 2012 with domestic battery. The charges ultimately were dismissed, but not before court hearings were scheduled and rescheduled multiple times, according to online court records.
This led the COA majority to vacate Loehrlein’s conviction and remand for a new trial. “L.W.’s answers to the juror questionnaire and her dissembling during her post-trial deposition are especially egregious because she was and is an attorney licensed to practice in this state, with almost twenty years of experience at the time of trial,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote in an opinion joined by Judge James Kirsch. “To the extent that the trial court concluded that L.W.’s behavior did not amount to gross juror misconduct, its decision was clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before the court.”
Appellate Judge L. Mark Bailey dissented and would have affirmed the verdict, noting that experts stopped short of testifying Loehrlein was insane. “Because Loehrlein admitted to the attacks and the jury heard from unified experts, there is no discernible harm from his loss of the opportunity to strike L.W. as a juror,” Bailey wrote.
L.W. is Newburgh attorney Lisa Watson, revealed through a wrongful-termination lawsuit she filed against the state in May, Lisa Watson v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 82C01-2005-CT-001957. Watson claims in the suit that she was fired from her job as a DCS staff attorney due to “claims against Plaintiff as a member of the jury alleging that Plaintiff ‘lied’ on her jury questionnaire … .
“On or about February 21, 2020, the Indiana Court of Appeals granted the above criminal defendant’s appeal and ordered that a new trial is to be held in the matter …,” Watson’s suit says. “On February 26, 2020, Plaintiff was terminated from her employment … for alleged ‘unprofessional behavior’ while serving on the aforementioned jury.”
Watson, the suit claims, “was terminated for her service on a jury in violation of Indiana Code 35-44.1-2-11 and Indiana Common Law.” The suit seeks her reinstatement at DCS, back wages, compensatory and punitive damages and attorney fees and costs.
Watson is represented in her employment suit by Evansville attorney Kyle F. Biesecker. He declined an IL request for comment on Watson’s behalf beyond the court filings.
The Indiana Attorney General’s Office has moved to dismiss Watson’s case on behalf of DCS, claiming she did not exhaust her administrative remedies because the suit was filed before the state had time to review the Indiana Tort Claims Act notice.
The AG’s motion to dismiss Watson’s wrongful termination case, however, did not address her contention that in Loehrlein’s criminal case, “The Indiana Attorney General’s Office filed an extensive brief outlining and arguing how Plaintiff had done nothing wrong while serving on the jury when she wrote ‘N/A’ on her juror questionnaire to several questions because she believed the response was proper and, as such, there was no ‘gross misconduct’ … .”
Representatives of the AG’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday.
On Thursday, Biesecker filed a response to the motion to dismiss Watson’s criminal case. It argued in part that the Indiana Tort Claims Act does not apply to her case, and if it did, Watson would have been unable to provide required notice without running the statute of limitations on filing her employment case.
Vanderburgh Circuit Judge David Keily set a hearing for Monday on the state’s motion to dismiss Watson’s employment case.
Remote oral argument before the Indiana Supreme Court in Loehrlein v. State is set for 10 a.m. Sept. 3.