Man’s conviction upheld in gang-related murder

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An East Chicago man could not convince the Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday that he shouldn’t be found guilty of murder for his involvement in a gang-related killing.

One night in early 2016, Angel Garcia-Berrios, Rolando Manuel Leal Jr., and Rito Maciel Jr., were together when Maciel received a message from a man Garcia-Berrios didn’t like, Thaddeus Rodriguez, Jr.

The three men began driving around as Maciel continued to speak with Rodriguez, and eventually they stopped the car near where Rodriguez said he was located. When Rodriguez appeared and was talking to a neighbor outside an apartment, both Garcia-Berrios and Leal ran out of the car toward Rodriguez and started shooting. Rodriguez was killed, and the bystander was shot multiple times.

Garcia-Berrios was eventually charged with murder, Level 5 felony battery by means of a deadly weapon and Level 6 felony criminal gang activity, and an information was filed alleging a criminal gang enhancement.

During trial and on redirect examination, a detective was asked why certain individuals had been eliminated as suspects in the case and the detective explained that he had been in possession of a recorded conversation between Maciel and Leal. In the recording, the detective noted that Leal said “that he and a person by the name of Angel were at the scene, at the Thaddeus Rodriguez homicide.”

The jury ultimately found Garcia-Berrios guilty of murder, battery by means of deadly weapon and criminal gang activity, as well as the allegations in the criminal gang enhancement. He was sentenced to 60 years for murder, enhanced by 60 years, plus three years for the battery conviction, to be served concurrently with the murder sentence. However, no judgment was entered on his criminal gang activity count.

Garcia-Berrios appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly admitted a portion of the detective’s testimony and that there was insufficient evidence to support the criminal gang enhancement.

But in affirming the Lake Superior trial court, the Indiana Court of Appeals first noted that the detective’s limited testimony on redirect examination did not make a fair trial impossible or result in fundamental error.

“To the extent Garcia-Berrios refers to his right to confrontation and asserts fundamental error, we note the fundamental error exception is extremely narrow and applies only when the error constitutes a blatant violation of basic principles, the harm or potential for harm is substantial, and the resulting error denies the defendant fundamental due process,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote for the appellate court. “The error must either make a fair trial impossible or constitute clearly blatant violations of basic and elementary principles of due process. This exception is available only in egregious circumstances.

“Defense counsel opened the door to the challenged portion of Detective (Stuart) Hinson’s testimony. The trial court could recognize a viable reason why Garcia-Berrios’s defense counsel wished to question Detective Hinson about eliminating other suspects even if the questioning opened the door to the challenged portion of his testimony,” the appellate court concluded.

Additionally, it found that the state presented sufficient probative evidence that Garcia-Berrios was a member of a criminal gang while committing the offenses and committed the felony offenses in affiliation with a criminal gang.

The case is Angel Luis Garcia-Berrios v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-02405.

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