Reversal: Justices split, reinstate murder conviction for teen after toddler’s shooting death

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In a 3-2 split, the Indiana Supreme Court has reinstated a murder conviction against a northern Indiana teen convicted in relation to the shooting death of a South Bend toddler. The dissent, however, would have granted post-conviction relief based on deficient counsel performance.

The case centers on Tyre Bradbury, who was 15 years old when his 19-year-old friend Robert Griffin shot and killed a toddler while firing at a rival in a 2014 gang dispute. Bradbury, who had provided the gun to Griffin, was later charged as an adult with murder as Griffin’s accomplice.

During his trial, Bradbury’s counsel stipulated to the fact that Griffin had been convicted of murder. Bradbury was one of multiple people convicted in the shooting linked to a gang fight, and the jury found Bradbury had gang ties, enhancing his sentence. He ultimately was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The teen then filed a petition for post-conviction relief claiming his trial counsels’ performance was deficient and that he was prejudiced as a result. But the St. Joseph County post-conviction court denied his petition.

In December 2020, a split Indiana Court of Appeals reversed for the teen, finding two issues dispositive: whether trial counsel was ineffective in stipulating as to Griffin’s murder conviction, or in failing to request a jury instruction on the lesser-included offense of reckless homicide.

Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented from the COA majority, agreeing with the post-conviction court that Bradbury’s counsel’s decisions were strategic.

The Supreme Court likewise split in the case of Tyre Bradbury v. State of Indiana, 21S-PC-441, affirming the denial of Bradbury’s PCR petition and effectively reinstating his murder conviction. Justices Steven David, Mark Massa and Geoffrey Slaughter affirmed the post-conviction court’s ruling that Bradbury’s counsel was not deficient.

“Bradbury asserts he tried to stop the shooting, and lead counsel testified emphatically and repeatedly that this was what he wanted to get across to the jury any way he could. The stipulation in no way forecloses or contradicts that theory of the case,” David wrote for the majority. “Thus, we find the Court of Appeals majority’s conclusion that the stipulation ‘wholly undercut’ the defense is inaccurate in light of Bradbury wanting not just to get a lesser conviction/sentence, but not wanting to be convicted at all.”

The majority noted that counsel articulated his thought process for agreeing to stipulate, and doing so was not illogical or absurd. Acknowledging Vaidik’s dissent, the majority further pointed out that even if Bradbury’s counsel had not agreed to the stipulation, Griffin’s intent likely would have been proven, thus making no difference in the outcome.

As to the lesser-included instruction, the majority found no prejudice and noted that Bradbury’s counsel made a reasonable decision to not seek a lesser-included instruction given the circumstances.

“Tendering the lesser included instruction would have given the jury another option to convict Bradbury. As the State correctly notes, Bradbury was unlikely to be acquitted of a lesser charge in light of the evidence that the shooting was not just reckless, but intentional, as well as Bradbury’s own repeated admissions of responsibility,” David wrote.

Justice Massa, writing separately in a concurrence and joined by Slaughter, noted that Bradbury’s counsel was “extraordinarily effective” in persuading the trial court to heighten the prosecution’s burden, allowing him to pursue a reasonable and permissible all-or-nothing trial strategy.

“That this clever and resourceful lawyering proved unsuccessful does not mean a violation of (Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)) occurred,” Massa wrote.

“Bradbury cannot overcome the ‘strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.’ And even if he could, how can he show a reasonable probability of a different result?” Massa continued. “The jury convicted him of murder with a specific intent to kill, why would they have found him guilty of reckless homicide? Defense counsel’s performance here was something to compliment, not second-guess.”

But Justice Christopher Goff, joined by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, dissented from the majority’s conclusion on counsel’s failure to request a lesser-included instruction.

“Given the ‘particular’ duties imposed by Strickland, codified in our Rules of Professional Conduct, and urged by the American Bar Association, I would hold that counsel’s failure to consult with Bradbury on whether to request a lesser-included instruction amounted to deficient performance,” Goff wrote. “And because conflicting evidence would likely have created a serious enough dispute over Bradbury’s culpability as an accomplice for the court to have given the instruction, I would also hold that counsel’s deficient performance resulted in prejudice.”

The dissent agreed, however, that the stipulation to Griffin’s conviction was a reasonable strategy.

Lastly, the court addressed other claims of ineffective counsel not addressed by the COA: whether counsel was ineffective for not using a defense witness’ prior consistent statement to rehabilitate the witness during trial, or for not raising a constitutional challenge. The justices rejected both arguments.

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