Justices affirm woman’s LWOP sentence in murder-for-hire case

Indiana Supreme Court justices have affirmed a woman’s life sentence for her role in the murder of a family member, finding sufficient evidence to support her sentences and convictions.

In Johnetta Ruth Hall v. State of Indiana, 20S-LW-00660, Johnetta Hall was found guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit the murder of Bill Reynolds, who was married to her mother, Dalene Cates. The couple lived in Scott County, where Reynolds housed a substantial collection of NASCAR memorabilia.

Reynolds filed for divorce from Cates in June 2015 and was awarded temporary possession of their residence. Meanwhile, Cates was ordered to vacate the premises and both parties were ordered not to transfer or dispose of marital property while the divorce was pending.

Following the divorce order, Hall, Cates, Hall’s daughter, Amaris Bunyard, and family friend Kerry Heald began moving some of Reynolds’ NASCAR memorabilia to a storage facility. It was then when Hall made comments to Heald that it would easier if Reynolds was dead and that she would pay Heald to kill Reynolds.

Specifically, Hall offered that in exchange for Reynolds’ murder, she could give Heald between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of NASCAR memorabilia, a third of Reynolds’ $300,000 life insurance policy and Hall’s Nissan 300Z. When Heald later expressed hesitancy about murdering Reynolds, Hall told him that Reynolds had allegedly been physically abusive and had raped Bunyard.

On the day of the murder, Heald went to Reynolds’ home and shot him in the head with a gun that Hall had given him. The women, meanwhile, gathered up the NASCAR memorabilia. When Heald was later given his portion, Heald put the murder weapon in the car Hall was driving per her instruction.

Hall was ultimately charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and obstruction of justice for Reynolds’ death. A mistrial was declared in the first trial during voir dire, and a change of venue from Scott County to Jennings County for the second trial was granted. At the second trial, Heald refused to testify and was held in contempt, prompting the trial court to order that his prior deposition be read into evidence, over Hall’s objection.

It also declined Hall’s request to admit a copy of an interview Heald conducted with police on Sep. 29, 2015, seeking to impeach Heald by prior inconsistent statements under Evidence Rule 613(B).

A jury found Hall guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder and found a murder-for-hire aggravating circumstance. Hall was sentenced by a special judge in the Jennings Circuit Court to life in prison without parole for murder and a concurrent 35-year sentence for conspiracy.

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed, finding that sufficient evidence supported her convictions and the murder-for-hire aggravating circumstance.

As for the murder conviction, the justices concluded that Hall’s attempt to distinguish direct versus circumstantial evidence was misplaced and that the circumstances and Hall’s involvement in the events leading up to the murder could help a jury to reasonably infer that Hall sought to aid, induce, or cause Heald to shoot and kill Reynolds.

It concluded similarly as to the conspiracy count, finding that reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence demonstrated that Hall agreed with Heald for Heald to murder Reynolds in exchange for compensation in the form of NASCAR memorabilia, life insurance proceeds and the Nissan vehicle.

Justices also found no abuse of discretion in the admittance of Heald’s 2017 depositions and exclusion of his September 2015 statement to police.

“Even assuming that there was an error relating to the admission or exclusion of evidence, any error would be harmless,” Justice Steven David wrote for the high court.

It also concluded that Hall’s sentence for conspiracy does not warrant a 7(B) revision.

“We find that Hall’s thirty-five-year sentence is not inappropriate given the nature of the offense and her character. The nature of Hall’s offense weighs heavily against a sentence revision,” it wrote. “…Given the level of Hall’s preparation and her persistence to see her plan come true, the nature of the offense weighs against 7(B) revision.”

As to her character, it found nothing that would warrant the 7(B) provision, noting that Hall did not have any criminal history, had a college diploma, and had regularly been employed during her adult life.

“These would tend to reflect favorably on Hall under the character of the offender analysis. However, the trial court considered these as mitigating factors, but it ultimately found that the aggravating circumstances ‘somewhat outweigh’ the mitigating factors, justifying the slightly aggravated sentence for the conspiracy charge. These aggravating circumstances included violating a protective order, that the victim was sixty-nine years old, and that Hall had significant time to withdraw from her plan,” it wrote.

“Accordingly, Hall’s conspiracy sentence is not an outlier appropriate for 7(B) revision.”

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