State argues against new trial for man freed in 2002 Elkhart killing

It’s been more than 15 years since Andrew Royer was convicted of an Elkhart County murder and more than nine months after he was freed due to concerns over his confession and other evidence, but his case is not over yet. Instead, it’s back at the Indiana Court of Appeals, where the state is asking for the reversal of an order giving Royer a new trial.

A panel of Judges Melissa May, Elaine Brown and Leanna Weissmann heard arguments Wednesday in State of Indiana v. Andrew M. Royer, 20A-PC-955.

Royer was convicted in 2005 of murdering 92-year-old Helen Sailor in her Elkhart apartment.  Sailor was found on the morning of Black Friday 2002, dead from what was determined to be strangulation.

Royer was tried alongside Lana Canen, who was likewise convicted but later exonerated after fingerprint evidence allegedly tying her to the scene of the crime was discredited. Royer for years failed in his attempts at obtaining post-conviction relief, but a trial judge in April 2020 granted him a new trial based on coercive investigative techniques that exploited Royer’s mental disability to force him into making two false confessions.

Now the state is asking the Indiana Court of Appeals to overturn the grant of Royer’s successive petition for post-conviction relief, arguing Wednesday that the interview techniques at issue were not newly discovered.

“The only thing different now is a new and improved trial strategy,” said Caryn Nieman Szyper, a deputy attorney general who argued on behalf of the state.

Specifically at issue in Royer’s case are two confessions he made to Detective Carl Conway. Royer argued, and the trial court found, that the roughly seven hours of an unrecorded “pre-interview” questioning exploited Royer’s mental disability and broke his will to elicit a confession. Royer is in his 40s but is described as having the mind of a child.

Royer would ultimately give Conway two confessions, but his legal team argued in successive post-conviction proceedings that Conway “spoon fed” the details to Royer. In the Court of Appeals, Judge Brown likewise asked about the significance of the hours-long unrecorded questioning.

Szyper maintained that the jury knew about the “pre-interview” sessions, so Conway’s interrogation tactics can’t be considered newly discovered evidence. What’s more, Szyper said, Royer participated in the interviews and was found to be competent to assist in his defense.

But Elliott Slosar, a lawyer with the Chicago-based Exoneration Project, argued that Royer was unable to understand and communicate what occurred during the unrecorded sessions.

Slosar pointed a court proceeding where Royer’s mother stood up and told the court that her son could not understand the questions he was being asked about his ability to pay for a lawyer. Also, Slosar continued, Conway admitted that he was informed of Royer’s disability but chose to disregard it.

Conway was eventually removed from the Elkhart Police Department’s homicide unit for issues regarding his credibility. Asked by Judge Weissmann why that wasn’t relevant to Royer’s case, Szyper said Conway’s removal would not produce a different result at a new trial because jurors heard the recorded sessions where Royer confessed.

Weissmann further noted that the trial court’s PCR order was a “three-legged stool”: the interrogation techniques and confessions, the fingerprint evidence that ultimately exonerated Canen, and the recantation of testimony from Nina Porter, a witness who tied both Canen and Royer to the murder.

The state focused only on the interrogation and confessions, with Szyper arguing the other two reasons for granting a new trial had no bearing on Royer.

The evidence against Royer has not changed since 2005, the state’s attorney said, and that evidence did not include the now-discredited fingerprint. Rather, she said, the fingerprint implicated only Canen, and her exoneration does not change the evidence against Royer.

As for Porter, Szyper argued again that her testimony only related to Canen. Porter told law enforcement that Canen mentioned the “old lady” in the apartment complex who had previously given Canen money but had refused on the night of the murder. Also, according to Porter, Canen muttered, “No one was supposed to get hurt,” then added, “Thanksgiving. Thanks for giving death.”

Slosar, however, said Porter did tie Royer to the crime because of another part of her testimony. Specifically, Porter testified that Canen “controlled” Royer, to the point where he would even stand out in the rain if she told him to. What’s more, Slosar continued, two officers testified at trial that they began investigating Royer because of Porter’s statement.

“She was the linchpin to the case against Andy at trial,” Slosar said.

At a retrial, Slosar said, Royer could present evidence about the fabricated fingerprint evidence, allegations that Porter was coerced into giving a false statement and allegations that Conway coerced multiple witnesses, not just Royer.

Szyper, however, repeatedly emphasized what she said was the critical point: The jury listened to Royer’s recorded confessions at his original trial. Jurors were able to hear Royer’s inflections and pauses, she said, and based on that experience, they believed his confession.

“It was inappropriate for the successive post-conviction court to invade the province of the jury,” she said.

The full oral arguments in Royer’s case can be watched online.

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