A student was wrongly convicted by a jury of shooting another teen during a drug deal gone bad, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday. The panel reversed his convictions and decades-long sentence after finding insufficient evidence that he committed the crime.
During a drug deal meeting gone wrong, Jesse Speck was shot after two individuals with guns entered his parked car and a third stood outside his window. Two of the men wore hoodies and face coverings, and the third was described by Speck as having an “afro” and glasses.
A struggle ensued between the car’s inhabitants and Speck was shot in the back, prompting the three men to flee to their own vehicle and drive off. Speck’s passenger, Geoffrey Krick, drove him to the hospital but gave officers a different account of what the shooter looked like, saying he had “dreadlocks.”
Officers later discovered that Speck and Krick had been communicating with a Brownsburg High School student named Geoffrey Carr to purchase marijuana, prompting a search of Carr’s phone. That search revealed phone records involving teenager Romello Webb, who was “best friends” with another student, Ean Edwards, from whom Speck had previously stolen marijuana.
Webb was charged with Level 2 felony attempted robbery resulting in serious bodily injury, Level 3 felony attempted robbery resulting in bodily injury, and Level 3 felony aggravated battery. But the state did not present physical evidence linking Webb to the shooting, such as a gun, bullet, shell casing, fingerprints, or DNA.
Speck also testified that he was never given an opportunity to identify the shooter before trial, but was only asked to describe what the shooter looked like. Meanwhile, Webb asserted that he had short hair at the time of the shooting and had never had dreadlocks.
For its part, the state alleged that Webb was friends with both Carr and Edwards, and admitted cell phone records from Webb’s phone on the day of the shooting that included location data. The location placed Webb about 50 meters from the scene of the crime just before it occurred and then back at his home about an hour later.
Although there was “[n]o gun, no DNA, no fingerprints, no ID” and differing descriptions of the shooter, a jury found Webb guilty of both attempted robbery counts and sentenced him to 17- and eight-years, respectively, to be served consecutively.
But a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed with Webb, finding there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the shooter.
First, the appellate court noted that both Speck and Krick consistently described the assailants’ car as “burnt orange/red” and not black, and that their descriptions of the shooter did not match Webb.
“The State describes these as ‘minor discrepancies.’ We disagree,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the appellate court.
It further found no physical evidence linking Webb to the offenses, rejecting the state’s four pieces of nonincriminating evidence including the fact that Webb was friends with Carr and Edwards and the vague text messages received by Webb from an unknown sender.
“Third, the State presented evidence that the black Dodge Challenger rented by
Webb’s mother had a hole in the windshield when it was returned to Enterprise on February 10 and that bullets were found in the rental car five months after the shooting. Setting aside the color differences in the Challenger (burnt orange/red vs. black) and even assuming that the hole in the windshield was from a bullet, the State presented no evidence that the hole in the Challenger’s windshield was connected to the events in this case,” the appellate court wrote.
Lastly, it noted that even if Webb was close to the location of the shooting at the time, it did not establish that he was the shooter.
“While we seldom reverse for insufficient evidence, we have an affirmative duty to make certain that the proof at trial is sufficient to support the verdict beyond a reasonable doubt,” the appellate court wrote.
Finding that proof to be insufficient, it therefore reversed Webb’s convictions in Romello Webb v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-1358.