COA reverses criminal conviction after jailed defendant didn’t receive case file

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A Vanderburgh County man will get a second day in court after the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed his criminal conviction, finding in part that his inability to get his case file while in jail violated his right to due process.

Jermaine Dewayne Marshall was charged with criminal trespass as a Class A misdemeanor and, initially, asked for a public defender. A few months later, at a pretrial conference, Marshall rescinded his request for appointed counsel.

When he told the Vanderburgh Superior Court that his public defenders had advised him to take a plea agreement, Magistrate Judge David Vowels said that did not matter to him, and he set the date for a bench trial.

At the May 2021 bench trial, Marshall told the court he had not received any witness statements or affidavits. The court responded that the state had followed procedure by filing those documents with the court’s clerk and that they were available for review.

“You could’ve gained access to those at any time,” Vowels said to Marshall. “As you were advised, being in custody makes that extremely difficult but that’s a choice you made.”

Marshall was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 180 days in the Vanderburgh County Jail.

On appeal, Marshall argued, in part, that he was denied fundamental fairness and due process of law because the court did not provide him with the discovery materials as originally promised. He cited Griffith v. State, 59 N.E.3d 947 (Ind. 2016), in which the Indiana Supreme Court noted, “It is quite possible that the State could violate a pro se prisoner’s due process rights by providing discovery solely in a format it knows the prisoner has no means of accessing. We hope never to see such a case.”

The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed in Jermaine Dewayne Marshall v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-1123.

As the appellate court found, Marshall informed the court at the March 2021 pretrial conference that he had not received any of the court filings or documents related to his case. The prosecutor told Marshall, “I’ll see how we can get discovery to the jail,” and the court assured him, “We’ll have the prosecutor send you your case file from the clerk, or somehow give you access to that.”

During closing arguments, Marshall again stated that he had not received the information the court had instructed the prosecutor to provide. The prosecutor did not dispute Marshall’s statement.

“The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no state shall ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law … .’  The phrase expresses the requirement of ‘fundamental fairness,’” Judge Elaine Brown wrote, citing Lassiter v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. of Durham Cty., N.C., 452 U.S. 18, 24, 101 S. Ct. 2153, 2158 (1981). “Fundamental fairness involves meaningful access to the courts, including through discovery, and through a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of the right to counsel at all significant phases of criminal proceedings, including trial and sentencing.”

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