Split COA affirms denial of PCR to woman with intellectual disabilities convicted of child molesting

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A woman with intellectual disabilities whose sentence for child molesting was already cut in half failed in her bid to convince the Court of Appeals of Indiana that she was entitled to post-conviction relief.

A dissenting judge, however, wrote that the woman’s trial counsel should have requested another competency exam before her second trial began.

Esther Martin was raised by Andrew and Arlene Martin, who adopted her when she was about 4 years old. The Martins are Old Order Mennonite and have five children, all adopted.

Martin exhibited developmental delays as a child and did not continue education past eighth grade, which wasn’t uncommon in her community. She lived with her parents in rural Elkhart County helping with household chores and never worked outside the home.

The Martins eventually began providing child care in their home for a handful of children, including B.H. Martin was about 18 years old at the time and helped care for the children.

According to court records, in January 2011, B.H. told his father that Martin, who was 26, was touching him inappropriately. B.H. was 10 at the time, and he said the touching began when he was 6 or 7.

Before an interview with Elkhart County Sheriff’s Detective Ryan Hubbell, Martin’s father informed the detective that she communicated at the level of a 12-year-old.

During the interview, Martin said she had a “problem” with wanting to inappropriately touch the children in her mother’s day care 10 to 15 years ago, but she had since grown out of it.

In October 2011, the state charged Martin with two counts of Class A felony child molesting related to B.H. The case was set for trial in July 2014, but a mistrial was ultimately declared when a juror asked if Martin’s mental state had been assessed.

Subsequent evaluations found she was not competent to stand trial. Thus, in November 2014, the Elkhart Superior Court committed Martin to the Division of Mental Health, and she was admitted to Madison State Hospital.

While there, Martin participated in the Legal Education Group with the goal that she could have a basic understanding of the conditions for participating in her own defense and the charges against her, along with the potential consequences and the trial process. Two doctors reported that despite Martin’s low IQ, she had scored 90.2% on a recent legal terminology test.

The case was reset for trial in January 2016.

Prior to trial, Martin’s counsel filed a motion to suppress her January 2011 interview, arguing that due to her mental deficiencies, she did not fully understand the waiver of Miranda rights or its significance.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress.

The trial proceeded, and the jury ultimately found Martin, then 32, guilty as charged.

At sentencing, her counsel argued that mitigating circumstances existed, including her mental challenges and lack of criminal history.

The state argued that while Martin didn’t have an official criminal record, there were prior incidents of sexual misconduct that her parents were aware of. The state further noted that while Martin was at MSH, she inappropriately touched a peer despite being specifically told to stay away from that person.

The court found the aggravators outweighed the mitigators and viewed Martin as an “opportunist,” having contact with B.H. when no one was around. She was sentenced to consecutive 40-year terms.

On direct appeal, the Court of Appeals reduced Martin’s sentence to concurrent 40-year terms.

She then filed for post-conviction relief, arguing that she received ineffective assistance of trial counsel on 16 bases, and that her appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to assert that she should have received credit against her sentence for her time at MSH.

The post-conviction court denied relief, leading to the instant appeal.

In her second appeal, Martin argued that her trial counsel provided ineffective assistance because he failed to request another competency evaluation prior to the 2016 trial.

However, the appellate court agreed with the PCR court that Martin’s trial counsel didn’t provide deficient performance.

“We agree with the State that, given the two 2015 competency reports, ‘no reasonable attorney would have believed there was a need to re-challenge Martin’s competency,” Chief Judge Robert Altice wrote. “Accordingly, we find, as did the PCR court, that (trial counsel) did not provide deficient performance by failing to seek a competency hearing before the second trial. Her ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on failure to request a competency hearing fails.”

Martin also argued that her trial counsel performed deficiently by failing to present available evidence of her intellectual disability.

Rejecting that claim, Altice wrote, “While counsel could have provided more evidence of Martin’s mental functioning, there is a presumption that counsel rendered effective assistance, and we are not persuaded that additional evidence about Martin’s recognized intellectual limitations would have had any appreciable effect on the sentence imposed.”

Finally, Martin argued — and the COA disagreed — that her trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the state’s argument at sentencing that her family and community were aware of her sexual deviant tendencies yet failed to protect children from her and instead protected their own.

“As the State observes, the argument was likely responsive to Martin’s mitigating argument at sentencing that her family and community had supported her throughout the whole process and were present at the sentencing hearing,” Altice wrote. “Moreover, while the trial court did mention the family/community’s complicity, it did not expressly identify such as an aggravator … .”

Judge Peter Foley concurred, but Judge Patricia Riley dissented with a separate opinion.

In her dissent, Riley concluded that trial counsel’s representation was inconsistent with prevailing professional norms, resulting in ineffective assistance when he failed to seek a competency hearing before Martin’s second trial.

“Unlike the majority and the post-conviction court, I find that an abundant amount of contemporaneous evidence exists which, viewed against the backdrop of Martin’s prior psychological and psychiatric testing, casts a bona fide doubt on Martin’s competency at the time of her second trial in January 2016,” Riley wrote.

The dissenting judge noted Martin had memorization capabilities that helped her pass the legal exam while committed, but that didn’t prove she fully understood the trial process.

“During MSH’s attempted ‘restoration’ of Martin’s intellectual abilities to gain an understanding of the legal process, it was obvious that, although Martin had memorization capabilities to a certain extent, these abilities declined rapidly once she was no longer ‘drilled.’ By the time of the second trial, it can be reasonably inferred that, in the absence of constant drilling and repetition, Martin had resorted back to her initial intellectual baseline,” Riley wrote.

While Riley said she would agree with the majority under normal circumstances, the moment a juror handed the trial court a note questioning Martin’s mental abilities, normal circumstances ceased to exist.

“Accordingly, I conclude that Martin met her burden of establishing that, had (trial counsel) requested a competency hearing, there is a reasonable probability the outcome of her case would have been different,” Riley concluded. “(Trial counsel) was ineffective for failing to challenge Martin’s competency to stand trial in 2016, and the post-conviction court’s conclusion is clearly erroneous.”

The case is Esther Martin v. State of Indiana, 22A-PC-2574.

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