A Delaware County man sentenced to more than 100 years for a crime he committed as a 17-year-old was granted a new sentence after the Indiana Supreme Court found “two major shifts in the law” provide the opportunity to reconsider sentences that were “manifestly unreasonable.”
Matthew Stidham was 17 when he and two others murdered Daniel Barker. At trial, he was sentenced to 141 years after being convicted of murder, Class A felony robbery, Class B felony criminal confinement, Class C felony battery and Class D felony auto theft.
The Indiana Supreme Court reversed, finding some of the evidence had been improperly admitted at trial and remanding for a new trial. At his retrial, Stidham was again found guilty of the five charges and sentenced to 141 years. Another appeal came before the Indiana Supreme Court where the majority rejected Stidham’s argument that his sentence was “disproportionate to the crime committed” but found the auto theft and robbery charges should have been merged and therefore left him with a 138-year sentence.
In 2016, Stidham filed a petition for post-conviction relief, challenging the imposition of the maximum sentence for crimes committed while he was a juvenile. The post-conviction court granted his petition and eventually resentenced him to an aggregate 68 years.
The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in State v. Stidham (Stidham III), 110 N.E.3d 410, 421 (Ind. Ct. App. 2018). Stidham subsequently sought transfer.
In State of Indiana v. Matthew Stidham, 20S-PC-634, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the post conviction court’s order and revised his sentence to an aggregate term of 88 years.
The majority found two “major shifts in the law” allowed them to revisit their prior decision about the appropriateness of Stidham’s sentence.
The first shift occurred when the Supreme Court changed the standard under which it could review and revise sentences that were determined to be “manifestly unreasonable.” As a result, the Supreme Court revised Appellate Rule 7(B) to allow state courts to revise a sentence if the sentence is “inappropriate in light of the nature of the offense and the character of the offender.”
Then the second major shift came when the U.S. Supreme Court began limiting when juveniles could be sentenced to the harshest punishments.
Writing for the majority, Justice Christopher Goff stated the two major shifts presented the “extraordinary circumstances” in which to reconsider its prior decision in Stidham’s case. Goff called Stidham’s crimes “horrific” but also noted his abusive childhood and his steps toward rehabilitation including completing his high school education and participating in substance abuse counseling.
“…(A)lthough we have said that ‘the maximum possible sentences are generally most appropriate for the worst offenders,’ Stidham received the maximum possible term-of-years sentence for crimes he committed as a juvenile,” Goff wrote citing Buchanan v. State, 767 N.E.2d 967, 973 (Ind. 2002) (citations omitted). “As we and the U.S. Supreme Court have held before, Stidham’s juvenile status weighs against a maximum sentence.”
However, Justice Geoffrey Slaughter dissented. He maintained that although Stidham made constitutional arguments, the majority based its decision on a claim the appellee did not raise.
Slaughter included an exchange from the oral argument in his dissent to show what he described as the majority’s resolve to decide the case under Appellate Rule 7(B) even while Stidham expressly disclaimed it. A footnote in the majority opinion held that after initially saying relief under 7(B) was not available, Stidham’s counsel later cited precedent and said the appellate rule was applicable. Yet, Slaughter was not convinced and highlighted the oral argument with one of the justices telling the Stidham’s attorney to “change your argument al little” and “not concede that so fast.”
“Instead, Stidham argued that his sentence was unconstitutional and that he had raised sufficiently different arguments on direct appeal so that res judicata did not preclude reaching the merits of his constitutional claims,” Slaughter wrote. “In other words, Stidham did not seek to overcome res judicata so courts could decide an unraised 7(B) claim, but so courts could — and would — decide the alleged violations of his constitutional rights.”