Convicted murderer gets habitual offender status reversed

A Vanderburgh County man convicted of multiple felonies including murder has convinced the Indiana Court of Appeals to overturn his habitual offender adjudication because, in admitting his prior convictions, he did not waive his right to a jury trial.

Christopher Bell was found guilty of felony murder and Class A felony conspiracy to commit robbery in 2013. Following the jury trial, the Vanderburgh Superior Court moved to the habitual offender phase, where Bell told the court he was voluntarily and by his own free will stipulating he was a habitual offender because of his two prior unrelated felony convictions.

The court told Bell he had the right to a hearing that was “not exactly a trial but they would have to prove these (convictions) beyond doubt.” Bell said he understood and confirmed he wanted to proceed with his admission.

Subsequently, he was sentenced to an aggregate of 90 years. The Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions in 2014 and the Indiana Supreme Court denied transfer.

Bell then filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, which was later amended by counsel. He argued that by admitting to his prior convictions with respect to the habitual offender count without personally waiving his right to a jury, he entered an involuntary guilty plea to the habitual offender information. Also, he contended his appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise the jury waiver issue on appeal.

In its review, the post-conviction court found that since Bell stipulated to his prior convictions in a bench trial and did not enter a guilty plea, the trial court was not required to advise him of his rights under Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 89 S. Ct. 1709 (1969), and obtain his waiver of those rights. Also, the post-conviction court found Bell’s appellate counsel did not render ineffective assistance by the attorney’s failure to raise the jury waiver issues on direct appeal.

The COA disagreed on both counts in Christopher Bell v. State of Indiana, 20A-PC-2295, vacating the habitual offender determination and remanding for a new trial on the habitual offender information.

Among the precedent cited, the appellate court found Perkins v. State, 541 N.E.2d 927,929 (Ind. 1989) to be “particularly instructive.” There, the justices held that the courts must require that any waiver of a jury trial must be a “knowing and voluntary choice” made by the defendant either “viva voce or in writing” and included in the court’s record.

“There is no disputing, here, that the colloquy between Bell and the trial court, following the jury’s verdict and prior to the ‘hearing’ on the habitual offender allegation, was not a constitutionally sufficient waiver of Bell’s jury trial rights,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the court. “… (T)he PC Court’s decision is contrary to law. We conclude that the trial court failed to advise Bell of his right to a jury trial regarding the habitual offender finding and Bell’s personal expression of his desire to forgo a jury trial is not apparent from the trial record.”

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