In the latest appeal stemming from the prosecution of a Long Beach man who killed his wife nearly 10 years ago, Indiana Supreme Court justices split ways in overturning the acquittal of his crime. One justice would have let the acquittal stand.
John B. Larkin of Long Beach was charged with Class A felony manslaughter after being accused of fatally shooting his wife, Stacey Renee Larkin, in December 2012. Long Beach Police Department officers found his wife dead in their home from two gunshot wounds.
His case proceeded against a history of police and prosecutorial misconduct that led the LaPorte Superior Court to dismiss the charges against him, which a divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in June 2017.
Supreme Court justices, however, reinstated the manslaughter charge against Larkin in June 2018, finding dismissal to be “an extreme remedy” for police and prosecutorial misconduct. The case went to trial in September 2019, where the prosecutor requested that the trial court instruct the jury on the offense of involuntary manslaughter, which was granted.
After Larkin was found guilty of Class C felony involuntary manslaughter, the lower appellate court reversed after addressing two of his arguments. It found the information did not allege Larkin shot Stacey “with an intent to batter rather than with an intent to kill” or that he “committed [a] battery by pushing Stacey.”
It also found there was, “at a minimum, reasonable doubt as to whether the State’s charging instrument provided Larkin with fair notice of the charge of which he was eventually convicted.” The appellate panel also briefly concluded there was insufficient evidence to contradict Larkin’s self-defense claim.
It therefore acquitted Larkin — a decision that divided the Supreme Court, which ultimately reversed Tuesday after granting transfer in John B. Larkin v. State of Indiana, 21S-CR-00427.
Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justices Mark Massa, Geoffrey Slaughter and Christopher Goff concurred, while Justice Steven David dissented with a separate opinion, arguing that he would let the appellate court’s decision stand.
Concluding that involuntary manslaughter based on a battery was a factually included lesser offense, the high court noted that there was a serious evidentiary dispute about the elements that distinguish voluntary manslaughter from involuntary manslaughter.
“During his interview, Larkin stated that he only intended to push Stacey with the gun. If the jury believed him, then it could (as it did) convict him of involuntary manslaughter,” Justice Massa wrote for the majority. “But he also mentioned the heated verbal and physical confrontation between him and Stacey just before she was shot, his finger’s placement on the trigger at one point, and the serious marital issues between them. Larkin’s witnesses also testified about those issues.
“From this evidence, the jury could reasonably infer Larkin intentionally or knowingly killed Stacey while under sudden heat. Because there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction of either offense, there was no abuse of discretion,” the majority held.
Turning to the constitutional analysis of fair notice, the high court concluded that Larkin was not deprived of it when the information alleged a battery and Larkin himself alerted the state to a possible theory of the case that it ultimately argued at trial. It further concluded that the state presented sufficient evidence to overcome Larkin’s self-defense claim and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying his motion to dismiss for prosecutorial misconduct or in treating the handgun as an aggravator.
Writing in dissent, Justice David disagreed with the majority’s analysis about battery being factually included in the offense given the charging information and the facts and circumstances at hand.
“While battery may be included where there is a murder by handgun, I’m not sure that’s always the case,” David wrote.
“I do not believe that the State should be able to seek a lesser included instruction mid trial once it realizes things aren’t going well or use a vague charging information to ambush a defendant,” David continued. “I fear the precedent the majority opinion sets will open the door to prosecutors trying to slip in other ‘lesser included’ charges at the last minute. If the State wants to be able to seek a lesser included conviction based on involuntary manslaughter, it should clearly and plainly allege a battery in the charging information.”