Split COA reverses post-conviction denial in teen murder case

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A split Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed the denial of a teenager’s petition for post-conviction relief of his murder conviction, finding his attorneys performed deficiently in a 2017 trial related to the fatal shooting of a South Bend toddler.

When Tyre Bradbury was 15 years old, his 19-year-old friend Robert Griffin shot and killed a toddler while firing at a rival in 2014. The bullets fired by Griffin missed the intended target and instead hit 2-year-old John Swoveland Jr., who was playing in a yard nearby. Bradbury, who unsuccessfully tried to stop Griffin from shooting, was charged as an adult with murder as Griffin’s accomplice.

During his trial, Bradbury’s attorneys stipulated to a major element of the state’s case — the fact that the adult shooter, Griffin, had been convicted of murder. By doing so, counsel admitted one of the contested elements of Bradbury’s crime. His attorneys also failed to request a jury instruction on the lesser-included offense of reckless homicide as an accomplice.

Although Bradbury filed a petition for post-conviction relief claiming his counsels’ performance on the two issues was deficient and that he was prejudiced as a result, the St. Joseph post-conviction court denied Bradbury’s petition. It concluded that the stipulation and the omission of lesser included offenses was strategic and, therefore, not the product of ineffective assistance of counsel.

But a split Indiana Court of Appeals panel on Wednesday reversed for Bradbury, finding two issues dispositive: whether trial counsel was ineffective in stipulating as to Griffin’s murder conviction and in failing to request a jury instruction on a lesser included offense. First, the appellate majority agreed with Bradbury that Griffin’s intent was as central to Bradbury’s prosecution as it was to Griffin’s.

“The primary issue in both the Griffin and Bradbury prosecutions was whether Griffin intended to kill his rival, L.B., or just frighten L.B. by recklessly firing in his general direction when the stray bullet from his gun struck toddler J.S. Bradbury’s jury was not bound by the verdict of Griffin’s jury. Yet, informing Bradbury’s jury of that verdict sent the opposite message: another jury had found beyond a reasonable doubt Griffin fired with the intent to kill, so Bradbury’s jury must follow suit. Trial counsel’s stipulation to elements of the offense which he thought the State would have had difficulty proving cannot be deemed reasonable. Moreover, the stipulation wholly undercut trial counsel’s litigation strategy of establishing

Griffin did not act with specific intent to kill,” Judge Leanna Weissmann wrote for the majority, joined by Judge L. Mark Bailey.

As for the lesser-included offenses, the appellate majority concluded that evidence did not support the post-conviction court’s conclusion that Bradbury’s attorneys were not ineffective in failing to request a jury instruction on lesser included offenses because the decision was strategic.

“Bradbury’s counsel specifically testified that he normally seeks as many lesser included offense instructions as the evidence will support, particularly in murder cases. Counsel also made clear that he would have tendered a lesser included offense instruction if the evidence against Bradbury supported it, and any failure to do so in the presence of such evidence was counsel’s error,” the majority wrote.

It thus concluded that the performance of Bradbury’s attorneys was deficient with respect to the stipulation and omission of lesser included offense instructions and that but for the deficient performance, there was a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different.

As such, it found the post-conviction court erred by denying his PCR petition and ultimately reversed and remanded in Tyre Bradbury v. State of Indiana, 20A-PC-620. But Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented in a separate opinion, asserting that the post-conviction court judge, who also presided over the jury trial, correctly concluded Bradbury’s counsel were not ineffective.

Finding that “reasonable minds differ” on the issues of whether counsel’s decisions were strategic and whether there is a reasonable probability the result of the trial would have been different, the dissenting judge concluded, “I cannot say the evidence as a whole leads unerringly and unmistakably to a conclusion opposite that reached by the postconviction court. I would defer to the judgment of the post-conviction-court judge, who also presided over Bradbury’s jury trial, and affirm on these and the other issues raised by Bradbury.”

Bradbury was one of at least seven 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.

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