Marion County prosecutor drops death penalty for man accused of murdering Southport police officer

The Indianapolis man accused of killing a Southport police officer is no longer facing the death penalty after the Marion Superior Court accepted an agreement Friday reached by defense attorneys and the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, which dropped the potential for capital punishment in exchange for a bench trial that could result in the defendant being sentenced to life in prison.

Jason Brown, 32, has been charged with murder in the death of Southport police Lt. Aaron Allan in July 2017. Brown had wrecked his car and was being aided by Allan when he allegedly shot the officer multiple times.

In seeking the death penalty, the late Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said it was “very important that we send a message that we won’t tolerate, in any way, attacks upon our public safety officers.”

Under the terms of the agreement, Brown will not be tried by a jury but will have a bench trial where the judge will hear the evidence and render a verdict. If he is found guilty, he could then be sentenced between 45 years, the minimum for murder, to life in prison.

Marion Superior Judge Mark Stoner was methodical in reading through the waiver document and making sure Brown understood everything to which he was agreeing.

“This is a major step to a potential resolution of a death penalty case,” Stoner said.

However, Allan’s father, James, told the court the agreement was a travesty and said his family had been blindsided. However, he also pointed out they have been waiting four and a half years for the trial.

“I’m at your mercy,” Allan said to Stoner.

The judge replied that he knew the Allan family was uncomfortable with the waiver and the death penalty being dropped. Yet he, too, noted the case had been going on for so long it might be the oldest open case on the docket.

Stoner kept the Feb. 7, 2022, trial date and blocked off two weeks on the court’s calendar. Attorneys on both sides anticipated they would each need about a week to present their evidence and arguments.

Family members of Brown and Allan attended the hearing, seated across from each other in the gallery. Brown was brought into the courtroom in shackles by three guards and seated at the defense table. He was wearing blue prison garb and had a close haircut and glasses.

Prior to the hearing, he looked down at the table, peered across the courtroom to his family and conferred quietly with his attorneys, Denise Turner and Rhett Lee. When the hearing began, he answered the judge’s questions with, “Yes, sir.”

Marion County deputy prosecutor Ross Anderson was the only prosecutor at the hearing.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment after the hearing.

Turner, lead defense counsel, said the agreement means Brown and his attorneys “can sleep a little bit easier knowing that he’s not going to be put to death.”

She said she does not think the state has enough evidence to prove Brown should receive the death penalty.

“I really feel that it shouldn’t have ever been filed as a death penalty case in the first place,” Turner said. “I was a little shocked that they did file it, but then, you know, Lt. Allan was a police officer and that’s primarily the kinds of cases that they’ll file it on. But I’ve never thought that this was even a murder case.”

‘A good Samaritan’

On the day of the incident, according to court documents, Brown exited a gas station and began driving at a high rate of speed. He wove around other cars, then crossed a median, struck a curb and overturned in the front yard of a home.

The Associated Press reported Brown was dangling upside down inside the vehicle when a nurse who had stopped to help told Brown not to move because he could further injure himself. The nurse told officers that Brown “became very agitated and belligerent and began cussing.”

As Allan approached, Brown allegedly shot him 11 times. Allan died a short time later.

Two other officers opened fire on Brown. He was hospitalized for several days with what authorities said were gunshot wounds to his face, left arm and right clavicle.

Brown has been incarcerated with the Indiana Department of Correction since he was released from the hospital.

After Friday’s hearing, James Allan told Indiana Lawyer that Brown should be tried by a jury of his peers and should face the death penalty. Allan said his son “was not just a police officer but also a good Samaritan who was trying to help when he was shot in the back (11) times by a cowardice man.”

Allan said he has attended every hearing in his son’s case. Although he does not approve of the agreement, Allan said he accepts the ruling to waive a jury trial.

“He took a police officer’s life,” Allan said of Brown. “There has to be accountability.”

Right to counsel

The case has drawn attention from the defense bar because Brown rejected legal representation by the Marion County Public Defender Agency and instead chose Turner, an Indianapolis solo practitioner, as his lawyer. Although the criminal defense attorney was defending him pro bono, she did not have any prior experience with death penalty cases.

This created a dilemma for the court, pitting Brown’s right to choose his own counsel against his right to effective counsel. It also raised the possibility that a guilty verdict would be subject to being overturned on appeal and require the county to spend another $1 million to retry the defendant.

In August 2019, Marion Superior Judge Sheila Carlisle referred Brown’s case to the public defender agency. Carlisle was concerned about Turner’s ability to handle the case and her inability to find co-counsel.

“Given the amount of time that has passed, coupled with the Defendant’s request for a continuance of the February 2020 jury trial date, the Court finds that the appointment of counsel is necessary to ensure the high quality representation that this capital case demands,” Carlisle wrote in her order.

Turner countered that the depositions were almost done and that funding had been approved for the experts, including a toxicologist and neuropsychologist. Even though she was still looking for co-counsel, she was confident she would find a second chair to help with trial preparations.

Public defenders Ann Sutton and Laura Pitts were assigned to the case. Andrea Lyon, a nationally known death penalty defense attorney and former dean of Valparaiso Law School, was appointed to serve as lead counsel for Brown.

In response, Turner filed an interlocutory appeal with the Indiana Supreme Court. She and her then co-counsel Jennifer Shircliff argued the question before the justices was not whether defense counsel is qualified but whether “forcing appointed counsel on an indigent defendant who has already retained counsel of choice” is constitutional.

The Indiana Supreme Court dismissed the appeal in December 2019. The order stated Brown had repeatedly stated to the trial court and the Supreme Court that a recent change in circumstances rendered his interlocutory appeal moot.

Carlisle recused herself in March 2020 and the case was assigned to Stoner. A month later, Stoner ordered the withdrawal of appointed counsel.

Turner remains Brown’s lead counsel. Her co-counsel is Lee and David Shircliff.

Outside the courtroom, Turner speculated that if appointed counsel had remained, they would have received the offer to waive the jury trial in exchange for the dismissal of the death penalty.

“I think that the same offer would have been made, honestly,” Turner said. “I think that, aside from seeking a plea agreement, I know that this would be an option that the public defender would be happy with, as well.”

Allan said his family is still suffering.

“There’s no closure for the loss of Aaron,” Allan said. “We hope the pain subsides eventually.”

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