COA upholds convictions, 40-year sentence for man convicted of robbing, beating 85-year-old woman

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(IL file photo)

A man convicted of breaking into an elderly woman’s home and severely beating her could not convince the Court of Appeals of Indiana that his felony convictions or sentence should be overturned.

In December 2019, 85-year-old M.B. lived in an apartment complex for elderly residents in Clarksville, which came equipped with an emergency cord that could be pulled to call for assistance. Her daughter, A.B., lived in a different unit in the apartment complex.

On Dec. 27, M.B. had dinner in her apartment with A.B. and made plans to see her grandchildren the next day, laying out several Christmas bags with gift cards. She then fell asleep in her chair watching TV.

M.B. woke to an attack by a man she didn’t know. The man slammed her hear onto the floor and attempted to rip her clothes off.

M.B. was able to pull the emergency cord during the attack. Her neighbors saw the emergency light activated and called the police. The attacker fled at some point.

Emergency responders found M.B. badly injured on her kitchen floor and transported her to the hospital. Meanwhile, Clarksville Police Department officers found her apartment in disarray, including blood on the carpeting and the sliding patio door standing ajar.

Police collected evidence from the apartment that included M.B.’s bloody pajama pants and underwear that were lying on the floor. They also found M.B.’s wallet in the outdoor dumpster, which they swabbed for DNA. Her purse and gift cards for her grandchildren were missing and never recovered.

M.B. was treated for a crushed orbital bone, broken wrist, broken nose and two broken vertebrae. She arrived at the hospital in a robe and a bed sheet, which Capt. Raymond Hall took after interviewing her.

The case went cold for a year after the police were unable to match the DNA found with any suspects. But in 2021, Hall received information that Gareth Sylvester Earl Jones was involved in the attack.

Jones was living in Louisville, Kentucky, but had worked in Clarksville in late 2019 and early 2020. He would often walk past M.B.’s apartment on his way to work.

Hall obtained a warrant to get a DNA sample from Jones, but he couldn’t be located, and the warrant expired.

Hall eventually located Jones, and after informing him of his Miranda rights, he interviewed him. Jones denied being involved in the attack and voluntarily submitted a DNA swab.

The police sent M.B.’s robe and pajama to the State Police Laboratory for DNA testing along with Jones’ DNA sample for comparison. The DNA on the wallet and robe matched Jones’ DNA to an incredibly high degree of mathematical certainty. However, the DNA found on the pajama pants matched Jones’ DNA to a lower degree of certainty.

The state ultimately charged Jones with Level 1 felony burglary resulting in serious bodily injury, Level 2 felony robbery resulting in serious bodily injury, Level 5 felony battery resulting in serious bodily injury and Level 6 felony sexual battery.

At his jury trial, Jones claimed the police conducted a “shoddy investigation,” including failing to properly ensure that the chain of custody of the evidence was maintained and failing to adequately investigate other suspects.

Also, Jones objected to the admission of the bag of clothing taken from M.B. at the hospital. The Clark Circuit Court overruled his objection.

For his part, Jones sought to introduce body camera video from the officers that arrived at the scene, which showed them not wearing gloves walking through the crime scene and commenting on certain items without collecting them. The trial court excluded most of the audio, finding it irrelevant.

The jury found Jones guilty of all counts except sexual battery.

At the sentencing hearing, M.B. testified that the attack left her with post-traumatic stress disorder and that she lived in constant fear. A.B. testified that her mother used to be active for her age, but now lived in pain and fear.

Jones’ mother testified regarding the abuse he suffered from his father as a child. His girlfriend also testified that he was the primary caregiver to their two children and had been a good father.

The trial court found as aggravating the significant and long-term injuries M.B. suffered and her advanced age. It also found as moderately aggravating Jones’ criminal history of two prior misdemeanor theft convictions.

The court found as mitigating the abuse Jones suffered as a child, the hardship incarceration would impose on his children and his lack of substance use.

Ultimately, the aggravators of M.B.’s age and injuries outweighed the mitigating factors.

The trial court vacated the battery conviction and reduced the robbery conviction to a Level 5 felony due to double jeopardy concerns. Jones was then sentenced to an aggregate of 40 years.

On appeal, the first issue Jones brought before the appellate court was whether the trial court abused its discretion by admitting DNA evidence obtained from the victim’s clothing due to the state’s alleged failure to adequately establish the chain or custody.

“Despite his claims to the contrary, Jones can only assert the possibility that the robe was tampered with in the approximately one-hour period before Captain Hall took possession of it. This is not enough to exclude evidence on chain-of-custody grounds,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote.

The second issue Jones raised was whether the trial court abused its discretion by excluding the audio portion of the police body camera video.

“Here, the video footage from the body cameras was admitted, which showed the actions of the police at M.B.’s apartment, and Jones’s counsel vigorously cross-examined the police about their alleged failures during the investigation. The State’s evidence included the fact that Jones worked in the area of the attack and often walked by M.B.’s apartment on his way to work,” Tavitas wrote. “More importantly, Jones’s DNA was found on the victim’s robe and her wallet. Given this strong evidence of Jones’s guilt, the exclusion of the audio portions of the body camera video was, at most, harmless error.”

Next, Jones challenged whether the state presented sufficient evidence to support his convictions. He noted that M.B. could not identify her attacker.

“Other evidence, however, supports the jury’s conclusion that Jones was M.B.’s assailant,” Tavitas wrote.

The judge continued, “Jones claims that his DNA could have been present due to his job working for UPS. Even if we were to agree that this was possible, precisely how Jones’s DNA ended up on M.B.’s robe and wallet was a question of fact for the jury to determine, and we will not second-guess the jury’s factual determinations on appeal. Jones also worked in the area of M.B.’s apartment and often walked past the apartment complex. Given this evidence, the jury could reasonably conclude that Jones was the person who broke into M.B.’s apartment and attacked her.”

Lastly, Jones questioned whether his aggregate 40-year sentence is inappropriate. The appellate court ruled it is not, noting Jones did not receive the maximum possible sentence.

“In short, Jones has not met his burden on appeal of showing that his forty-year sentence is inappropriate in light of the particularly brutal nature of his offense and his less-than-stellar character,” Tavitas concluded.

The case is Gareth Sylvester Earl Jones v. State of Indiana, 22A-CR-2661.

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