A known heroin dealer convicted of murdering one of his buyers and two other individuals did not convince the Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday that his convictions should be reversed.
Kenneth Lancaster, who dealt heroin from a rotating series of locations, allowed his buyers who were low on money to purchase from him in exchange for providing Lancaster with the title to an automobile, providing work on an automobile, or doing other odd jobs.
During one such instance in 2017, buyer Jessica Carte was given the charge by Lancaster to make regular car payments on one of Lancaster’s vehicles with money he gave her. When she failed to make timely payments, Lancaster killed Carte, her boyfriend, Keith Higgins, and Higgins’ father, Mark Higgins.
All three individuals died as a result of multiple gunshot wounds. And Lancaster was eventually charged with three counts of murder.
During Lancaster’s trial, the State of Indiana sought to present the testimony of Tony Leonard, who had overheard Lancaster and Lancaster’s brother talk about killing Jessica before the murders occurred. The Marion Superior Court overruled Lancaster’s objection, and he was ultimately found guilty as charged and sentenced to an aggregate 170 years behind bars.
An appellate panel on Friday affirmed Lancaster’s conviction and sentence in Kenneth Lavar Lancaster v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-02970.
The COA first addressed whether the trial court erred by permitting Leonard to testify about the conversation he overheard between Lancaster and Lancaster’s brother.
“Here, after Lancaster’s brother stated that they needed to ‘smoke Jessica,’ Lancaster did not deny, disagree with, or refute the statement, and even went a step further, saying that they would ‘have to do them all,’” Senior Judge John Baker wrote for the appellate court. “Under these circumstances, we find that the trial court did not err by finding that the statement of Lancaster’s brother was admissible as an adoptive admission.”
Additionally, it found that the second statement, made by Lancaster, is plainly admissible and is not hearsay “because it was a statement made by a party opponent (Lancaster) and was offered by the State against that party.”
The appellate court further found sufficient evidence to support Lancaster’s convictions, despite his assertions that no one saw him commit the crimes, saw him at the scene where they occurred, and or saw him going to or coming from the scene.
Although he contended that there was also no specific physical evidence placing Lancaster at the scene or connecting him to the crimes, the appellate court pointed to the circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences that could be drawn from that evidence. With that, the appellate court concluded it could lead a reasonable fact finder to find that Lancaster was guilty of the three murders.
Lastly, the appeals court found as harmless error the trial court’s consideration in the sentencing process of an improper aggravator, namely Mark’s age at the time of his murder. The appellate court also noted that the record does not clearly support a conclusion that Lancaster was merely an accomplice or accessory and that the trial court did not err by declining to find it as a mitigator.