Reversal: Same name not sufficient evidence for serious violent felon conviction

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A Decatur County man facing an aggregate sentence of 30 years had his Level 4 felony conviction overturned after the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled that a defendant having the same name as a person convicted in a previous drug case was not enough to sustain a conviction as a serious violent felon.

Zachary Woodward was arrested after he failed to appear for a court hearing. He was discovered by police in a storage unit, smelling like marijuana and possibly possessing methamphetamine.

In subsequent searches of his home, tattoo parlor and his mother’s residence, officers found more drugs, drug paraphernalia, a disassembled shotgun, a modified shotgun and ammunition.

Woodward admitted he was not legally allowed to possess firearms. However, he told police that he believed he was allowed to be in possession of pieces of a firearm as long as the pieces were not assembled and that a friend had asked him to artistically embellish the stock of one of the weapons.

The state charged Woodward with possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon as a Level 4 felony, possession of methamphetamine as a Level 5 felony and possession of marijuana as a Class A misdemeanor. A jury found him guilty as charged and also found him a habitual offender.

Woodward appealed, challenging, in part, his conviction as a serious violent felon.

The state submitted evidence that a person named Zachary Woodward was convicted for dealing in a controlled substance in 2008, but it did not introduce any evidence, like a Social Security number, that linked Woodward to the previous conviction.

As such, Woodward argued the state did not prove he was the same Zachary Woodward as the prior defendant.

The Court of Appeals agreed in Zachary Aaron Woodward v. State of Indiana, 21AS-CR-1229, finding the state failed to provide sufficient evidence to sustain the conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon.

In particular, the appellate panel noted the state did not call any witnesses to identify Woodward as the person who pleaded guilty to the 2007 charge. Also, the state did not provide mugshots or fingerprints.

The Court of Appeals pointed to rulings from the Indiana Supreme Court as well as other appellate panels, which have held that more evidence than a date of birth and same name is required for the state to prove Woodward’s identity as the previous offender.

“… (G)iven the lack of evidence at trial of Woodward’s physical characteristics, we cannot say that the identifiers in the 2007 police incident reports sufficiently identify Woodward as the perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the court. “The evidence in the incident reports describes the 2007 offender. The State is required to link that description to the May 2021 defendant in order to persuade us that it had provided ‘supporting evidence.’

“… The State provided no photographs of the 2007 offender,” Tavitas continued, “no fingerprint evidence, no witness testimony, and no evidence that any of the identifiers in the prior record, including the social security, matched Woodward.”

However, the COA rejected Woodward’s challenges to his other two convictions, finding the evidence sufficient and no error in the admission of the evidence.

The case was remanded for further proceedings.

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