Justices vacate habitual offender enhancement after 6-year delay in retrial

A man serving an 80-year sentence for a drug conviction will have his sentence reduced to 50 years after the Indiana Supreme Court ordered that his habitual offender enhancement be vacated.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote for the high court Wednesday in Stanley V. Watson v. State of Indiana, 20S-CR-64, a case dealing with the right to a speedy trial protected under Indiana Criminal Rule 4.

Stanley Watson was convicted in 2001 of felony dealing in cocaine and was found to be a habitual offender. The Ripley Circuit Court imposed an aggregate 80-year sentence: 50 years on the drug conviction plus a 30-year habitual offender enhancement.

More than a decade later in April 2012, Watson secured a post-conviction relief judgment that vacated the 30-year enhancement. The state was granted permission to retry him on the habitual offender allegation, but “(i)t would be 2,325 days – nearly six and a half years – before he was retried,” Rush wrote Wednesday.

In the ensuing years, the trial was continued on motions from Watson, the state and the trial court, while two judicial recusals further delayed the proceedings. Watson penned a letter in December 2015 telling the court, “I want to get this trial over,” and a scheduled March 2017 trial date came and went with no action or explanation to Watson.

Finally on Nov. 15, 2018, Watson moved to dismiss under Indiana Criminal Rule 4(C), claiming a violation of his right to a speedy trial. The trial was then held within 12 days, and Watson was found to be a habitual offender. His motion to dismiss was denied the next day, with the trial court holding that Rule 4(C) “does not apply to retrials after vacation or reversal of a conviction.”

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals vacated the habitual offender enhancement in October 2019, with Judge James Kirsch dissenting. The Supreme Court then granted transfer, ultimately agreeing with the COA majority that the enhancement should be thrown out.

“Here, Watson waited nearly six and a half years before he was retried on the State’s habitual-offender allegation. He contends that this delay violates his right to a speedy trial under Criminal Rule 4(C) and the state and federal constitutions,” Rush wrote. “The State responds that Watson is not entitled to relief, arguing that Rule 4(C) does not apply to retrials and that the delay was not unconstitutional.

“Both parties are partially correct,” the chief justice continued. “While Criminal Rule 4(C) does not apply to habitual-offender retrials, the six-plus-year delay violated Watson’s constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

Though the justices reinforced the holding in State ex. Rel. Brumfield v. Perry Cir. Ct., 426 N.E.2d 692, 695 (Ind. 1981), that Criminal Rule 4(C) does not apply to retrials, the inquiry did not end there in Watson’s case, Rush wrote. Instead, the court continued its analysis under Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1970), using that test to find a violation of Watson’s rights.

“All four Barker factors weigh in Watson’s favor,” Rush wrote. “First, six-plus years of delay to try Watson on a habitual-offender allegation is uncommonly long. Second, the government is responsible for a majority of that delay.

“Third, Watson appropriately asserted his right to a speedy trial,” she continued. “And finally, Watson has shown prejudice resulting from the extraordinary delay.

“And so,” Rush concluded, “we find that Watson was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter concurred in all parts of the opinion except the finding regarding Watson’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial. He did not pen a separate dissent on that issue.

Elaborating on the majority’s holding on that factor, Rush noted that Watson wrote four times to the trial court regarding the timing of his trial.

“As Barker explained, this fundamental right ‘is unique in its uncertainty as to when and under what circumstances it must be asserted.’ 407 U.S. at 529. And the circumstances here reveal that Watson wrote each letter during a time when his first attorney was unresponsive to his inquiries and not filing documents with the court to expedite the process. And while it’s true that the trial court was not required to respond to Watson’s correspondence, what matters is whether the letters put the government on notice that Watson wanted to be tried. And given their ‘frequency and force,’ his letters provided sufficient notice.”

Thus, the justices remanded with instructions that Watson’s habitual offender enhancement be vacated.

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