COA reverses denied PCR based on counsel’s deficient performance

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected.
An appellate panel has reversed and remanded for a new trial for a Clark County man convicted of murder following a fatal drug exchange after finding he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

James Washington was convicted of murder and robbery following a drug deal that turned deadly when he fatally stabbed customer Robert Eader over an argument about unmet payments.

The Clark Circuit Court sentenced Washington to 65 years due to his criminal history and the nature of the crime, but Washington argued on direct appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support his murder conviction.

He claimed self-defense against Eader, citing the man’s status as a military veteran, but the appellate court noted that once Washington pulled a knife during the fistfight, he was “no longer using reasonable force.”

Washington later filed an unsuccessful petition for post-conviction relief, alleging he was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel when his counsel did not object to one of the trial court’s jury instructions and when his counsel tendered an erroneous instruction, both of which the trial court provided to the jury.

In rejecting Washington’s ineffective assistance claim, the trial court adopted, nearly verbatim, the Court of Appeals of Indiana’s reasoning in Washington v. State, No. 10A05-1312-CR-626, 2014 WL 3511705, at *1–2 (Ind. Ct. App. July 15, 2014), trans. denied, that the state had presented sufficient evidence to negate Washington’s claim of self-defense. Based on that same reasoning, it concluded that “there could not have been sufficiently appreciable evidence of sudden heat” and, therefore, Washington “was not entitled to an instruction on voluntary manslaughter.”

“Though we do not defer to the court’s legal conclusions, we review its factual findings for clear error — that which leaves us with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote for the Court of Appeals.

It concluded that Washington’s trial counsel rendered constitutionally deficient assistance when he failed to object to an erroneous jury instruction that stated the jury could disregard mitigating evidence of sudden heat if it found Washington guilty of murder.

The COA noted that the trial court instructed the jury that, if it found that the state proved the offense of murder, “then you need not consider the included offense of voluntary manslaughter.”

“Thus, contrary to instruction 24, the jury’s job at Washington’s trial was not complete once it found that the State had proved the elements of murder,” Mathias wrote. “Had Washington’s trial counsel objected to instruction 24’s erroneous language, the trial court would have been obliged to sustain the objection.”

It further held that Washington’s counsel was constitutionally ineffective when he tendered an instruction, accepted by the trial court, that erroneously stated that the state had the burden of proving the existence of sudden heat beyond a reasonable doubt as an element of voluntary manslaughter.

Finally, it concluded that Washington’s counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him because a properly instructed jury could have found Washington guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder.

“Therefore, the post-conviction court erred when it concluded that Washington was not prejudiced by his trial counsel’s deficient performance. We reverse the post-conviction court’s judgment, vacate Washington’s convictions, and remand for a new trial on the State’s charges,” it concluded in James Lewis Washington v. State of Indiana, 21A-PC-385.

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