Justices asked to reverse murder conviction, life sentence in death of Madison County toddler

A Madison County man convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s toddler is asking the Indiana Supreme Court to throw out his conviction and sentence to life without parole.

The high court on Thursday heard oral arguments on direct appeal in Ryan Ramirez v. State of Indiana, 20S-LW-430.

Defendant-appellant Ryan Ramirez was convicted of murdering P.H., the 23-month-old daughter of his girlfriend, Kayla Hudson. He was also convicted of neglect causing injury to Hudson’s son, and he was sentenced to life without parole for the murder conviction and to 14 years on the neglect charge.

Ramirez’s almost 80-page brief raised numerous issues challenging both his murder conviction and sentence, but his lawyer, Spenser Benge, focused on two issues during arguments: whether the Madison Circuit Court abused its discretion in giving a supplemental jury instruction or in admitting video surveillance footage seized from the Ramirez home.

The supplemental instruction came after the jury had been deliberating for more than three hours, according to Benge, a lawyer in Anderson.  The jurors had asked the court whether “intentionally causing harm that leads to death” was the same as “intentionally kills.”

Ramirez’s trial lawyer objected to the supplemental instruction, claiming there was no “legal lacuna” creating a gap, error or blank in the original jury instructions. He argued the original instructions properly instructed the jury on the “knowingly” or “intentionally” mens rea necessary to find Ramirez guilty of murder.

Ramirez’s objection to the supplemental instruction was overruled, as was his request that the original instructions be reread to the jury in full. The court then sent this supplemental instruction to the jury: “The State does not have to prove that a defendant specifically intended to kill another person for that defendant to be guilty of murder. It is enough for the State to show that a defendant knowingly inflicted an injury that resulted in the other person’s death, and at the time he inflicted the injury, the defendant was aware of a high probability that said injury could cause the death of the person.”

According to Benge, the jury reached its guilty verdict within 20 minutes of receiving the supplemental instruction.

Courtney Staton, the deputy attorney general arguing for the state, told the Indiana justices there was no error in any part of that process.

The jury asked about a question of law that was not covered in the original instructions, Staton said: How is culpability proven in a results-based crime? The trial court was permitted to respond to that unaddressed issue, she continued, and the judge worked with the parties to craft the supplemental instruction.

Staton also picked up on an issue raised by Chief Justice Loretta Rush: Did Ramirez waive his challenge to the court’s procedure for issuing the supplemental instruction? Rush first posed that question to Benge, opining that Ramirez had objected to the substance of the supplemental instruction but not the procedure of sending it to the jury on its own rather than with the entire instructions.

Benge maintained that Ramirez’s objection was sufficient. Defense counsel had only agreed that if a supplemental instruction was necessary, it should be issued in writing, not orally, Benge argued. Beyond that, Ramirez maintained his objection to the issuance of the supplemental instruction, including the issuance of that instruction individually.

Staton, however, argued Ramirez had waived the procedure of “hailing” the jury back into the courtroom for a rereading of the entire instructions. And even if he had lodged a specific objection to the supplemental instruction being sent individually, Staton continued, there would still be no reversible error because the individual supplemental instruction was meant to be considered as part of the total instructions.

But Rush told Staton at the outset of her argument that the trial court’s procedural handling of the supplemental instruction was “problematic.” In response, Staton acknowledged there was “tension” between historic caselaw on the issuance of supplemental instructions and the “new trend” toward the trial court facilitating jury deliberations when there’s an impasse.

Even so, the state’s lawyer returned to the jury’s question: Is there a difference between intentionally acting in a manner that leads to death and intentionally killing a person? With the help of the parties, Staton said, the trial court sought to answer that specific question.

Aside from procedure, Benge also raised a substantive challenge to the supplemental instruction: its use of the word “could” instead of “would” in the phrase, “aware of a high probability that said injury could cause the death of the person.”

The pattern jury instructions use the word “would,” and Staton admitted she did not know why the court chose to use “could.” Justice Christopher Goff opined that the language change could’ve prejudiced Ramirez, and Benge agreed, saying the language created a “watered down” mens rea.

Benge also argued that the supplemental instruction told the jury to disregard the “intentionally” standard — killing P.H. with a “conscious objective” to do so — and to focus instead on the “knowingly” standard — acting in a way that created a “high probability” that his actions would result in P.H.’s death.

But Staten rejected Benge’s “watered down” argument, saying the “sliding scale” of would to could to should was not a real distinction. She also argued the language of the supplemental instruction “naturally captured” both the knowing and intentional elements, thus fully instructing the jury.

Turning to the second issue, the seizure of home surveillance footage, Benge maintained the seizure was unlawful under both the Fourth Amendment and the Indiana Constitution.

The search warrant at the time officers seized the surveillance camera only allowed officers to photograph and videotape the Ramirez home, Benge argued. The warrant did not allow officers to seize any items, as they did with the camera.

But Justice Mark Massa noted the officers didn’t review the footage until they had obtained a second warrant allowing them to do so. Why was that process wrong, he asked?

According to Benge, when officers saw the surveillance camera, they should have stopped the process and obtained the second warrant before seizing the camera. There were no exigent circumstances to necessitate seizing it immediately, he argued, noting the video footage had not been destroyed in the time between P.H.’s death and the later search of the home.

But Staton said the seizure was proper under the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment, arguing that officers believed the camera — which was pointed at the front yard — could have shown Ramirez interacting with the children before P.H.’s death. Indeed, the video did show that: Ramirez was seen striking at the children in a vehicle in the driveway before the child died.

The inevitable discovery doctrine also protected the seizure, Staton continued, noting a magistrate issued a second warrant allowing police to review the footage.

Benge asked the high court to reverse Ramirez’s convictions and life sentence and remand for further proceedings, while Staton asked the court to reverse in full.

The full oral arguments can be viewed online.

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