Justices weigh murder case from 2000 involving 15-year-old

A decades-old murder case was considered by the Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday during oral arguments where parties debated whether the former teen defendant was prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to present mitigating evidence about his mental illness at the time of the offense.

Damian Harris was 15 when he shot and killed a convenience store employee after a failed robbery attempt in February 2000. He was waived to adult court, where a maximum 65-year sentence was imposed by the Allen Superior Court. But the case was later remanded for resentencing after the Indiana Court of Appeals found the trial court had erroneously cited an improper aggravating circumstance.

The COA also found the trial court had erroneously enhanced Harris’ sentence by citing aggravating factors that had not been submitted to the jury or admitted by Harris in violation of Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004).

However, the same sentence was imposed on remand, and the COA ultimately affirmed. Harris’ subsequent petition for post-conviction relief was denied by the trial court, which the COA also affirmed in July. 

During oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday, public defense attorney Kristen Phair contended on behalf of Harris that the COA departed from state and federal precedent when it found Harris was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to present mitigating evidence of his adolescent brain damage, abusive home life and resulting psychological damage.

Phair noted that although the same trial court judge heard the case twice, that judge misapplied the law as it pertained to brain development evidence and trauma. Phair pointed out that when the trial court judge concluded Harris’ sentence would still be the same, he was held to the same standard as an adult in violation of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

“We know Damian didn’t have a highly developed executive function,” she argued. “The post-conviction court violated the Supreme Court’s general recognition that children are constitutionally different for purposes of sentencing.”

Likewise, Phair argued Harris’ former counsel failed to have him evaluated by a mental health expert prior to sentencing. She argued the resulting evidence would have created a reasonable probability that Harris would have received a lesser sentence. Phair further argued the COA departed from Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B) precedent when it found Harris was not entitled to a lesser sentence, ultimately requesting a reduced sentence from the high court.

When asked if it would be fair and appropriate to exercise 7(B) after so much time had passed since Harris’ 2003 conviction to factor the difference between what was known then versus now, Phair maintained that Harris’ trial counsel had a duty then to dive into the adolescent brain development science and present it to the court.

“Once Roper had been handed down, that only made her duty to present that on resentencing stronger,” Phair said. “Here, we have defense counsel who admitted it was a mistake not to have investigated this avenue of mitigation, and there was no strategic reason not to.”

Arguing on behalf of the state, supervising deputy attorney general Justin Roebel maintained that Harris had not shown he was prejudiced by his trial counsel. He argued that issues concerning the legality and appropriateness of Harris’ sentence were completed 15 years ago and are at this point res judicata.

Roebel noted that when the COA rejected Harris’ 7(B) request, transfer to the Supreme Court was not sought. Thus, he argued, the Supreme Court could not now overcome principles of res judicata and invoke its constitutional authority with the case currently before it and under the justices’ jurisdiction.

“Giving respect to the appeal process that was already completed, that was the time. That was the opportunity,” he said.

The state therefore requested that the post-conviction court’s decision be affirmed, or if not, that the case be remanded for resentencing.

The full oral argument in the case of Damian Justin Harris v. State of Indiana19S-PC-00529 can be watched here.

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