Conviction reversed after COA finds fundamental error over prior crimes

The Indiana Court of Appeals has overturned the conviction of a Cass County man sentenced to an aggregate of 49 years, asserting a “bright line must be drawn” over the admissibility of a defendant’s prior convictions during trial.

Terrance Trabain Miller was arrested after a traffic stop found him in possession of baggies of heroin and methamphetamine, cash and a handgun. He was subsequently convicted of one count of Level 2 felony dealing in meth, one count of Level 2 felony dealing in heroin, a narcotic drug, and one count of Class A misdemeanor resisting law enforcement, along with one count possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon.

After the trial, the state moved dismiss the serious violent felon charge, telling the Cass Circuit Court it had not proven the armed robbery that was alleged. The trial court granted the motion. Miller then admitted his status as a habitual offender and was sentenced.

On appeal, Miller argued a fundamental error occurred when the jury was instructed on the serious violent felon charge. In particular, he asserted, the jurors then knew he had a prior felony conviction for robbery that was not relevant to the other charges and that possession of the firearm was already established because it elevated the two other charges of dealing and possession of a narcotic drug.

The Court of Appeals agreed in Terrance Trabain Miller v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-2315, highlighting a line of cases which, according to the court, showed the “slippery slope” that has developed over the years under the SVF charge relevancy analysis.

“We can think of no reason why a jury should be made aware of the fact of a defendant’s prior conviction to support an SVF charge during the phase where the other primary charges are being tried,” Senior Judge Ezra Friedlander wrote for the court.

The appellate panel found that the jury instruction should not have been used because of its prejudicial nature and that Miller’s counsel should have moved for bifurcation of the serious violent felon charge. Even though the state dismissed the SVF charge after the jury had rendered its verdict, that did not balance the rights Miller was deprived of during the trial.

“We believe that a bright line must be drawn here,” Friedlander wrote. “… The prejudicial nature of the prior-crimes evidence in the primary charge phase of the trial erodes if not eviscerates the defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence.

“This is so no matter the level of sophistication of the juror tasked with divorcing himself from applying that knowledge to the primary charge,” the senior judge continued. “We believe that bifurcation of SVF charges serves the purpose of protecting a defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence and ensures a fair trial. Miller did not receive a fair trial because of this fundamental error.”

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