Justices consider ‘de facto life sentence’ for teen convicted of murder

The sentencing fate of a man convicted as a teenager of murder is in the hands of the Indiana Supreme Court as the justices decide how they will rule in the case concerning a “de facto life sentence” for the teen.

Donnell Wilson was convicted of murder at age 16 after shooting another teen in the head and received a 181-year prison sentence. His petition for post-conviction relief was denied, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the denial in June after concluding Wilson was denied effective assistance of trial counsel with respect to his sentencing.

The COA remanded with instructions to vacate Wilson’s sentences and to hold a new sentencing hearing that complies with Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), leading the state to appeal. Indiana Supreme Court justices heard the case of Donnell Dontrell Wilson v. State of Indiana, 19S-PC-548 in oral arguments last week after granting transfer to the case at the state’s request.

Attorney Katherine Province, representing Wilson, urged the high court to adopt the COA’s opinion, arguing it had correctly decided that Wilson’s trial counsel performed ineffectively at his sentencing hearing. Province said juveniles facing de facto life sentences are entitled to sentencing hearings that comply with Miller, which she asserted did not happen in her client’s case.

“You have to look at Miller in its entirety,” Province told the court. “It’s saying that those mandatory sentencing schemes are unconstitutional because it does not allow the sentence to consider youth. … I think there needs to be a requirement that the sentencing judge consider the youth and its attendant circumstances.”

Justices Geoffrey Slaughter, Mark Massa and Steven David expressed concerns with Province’s argument on that point. However, Chief Justice Loretta Rush voiced her concern about balancing the information presented at Wilson’s post-conviction hearing, regardless of how heinous his crimes were.

“There was no follow-up. We didn’t get the other side of the story, and that’s what I’m struggling with right now,” the chief said.

Deputy attorney general Ellen Meilaender argued there wasn’t much more Wilson’s original counsel could have done to better represent the teen at the time, stating there was a reasonable investigation of what sort of mitigating evidence he could present.

Upon pointing out that Wilson showed no remorse and that there were no results showing he had any mental illness, Meilaender said the Miller argument was “procedurally defaulted” in the case at hand.

“This is a post-Miller case,” she said. “Miller was decided prior to his claim. We’re not dealing with the retroactive dealing of a rule that wasn’t in existence at the time.”

But Province countered on rebuttal that Wilson’s counsel was ineffective for his failure to raise the Miller argument, adding her belief that Wilson is capable of rehabilitation and does not deserve to die in prison. She then requested the high court to vacate his criminal gang enhancement and order a Miller-compliant sentencing hearing.

The full oral arguments can be watched here. 

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