Teen convicted in Porter Co. slayings loses appeal of convictions, but sentence reduced for double jeopardy

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A teenager convicted of killing two people in a drug deal-turned-robbery has lost his appeal of his murder convictions and 150-plus-year sentence, though that sentence will be slightly reduced after the Indiana Court of Appeals threw out an attempted robbery conviction on double jeopardy grounds.

The case of Connor Ralland Kerner v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-2377, began on Feb. 24, 2019, when Thomas Grill and Molley Lanham returned from a trip to Denver. The couple brought with them a large quantity of THC cartridges.

Grill and 17-year-old Connor Kerner had plans to meet to settle Kerner’s $15,000 debt. The plan was for Kerner to give Grill 37 pounds of marijuana in exchange for 1,000 THC cartridges. What the two didn’t know, however, was that each had a plan to rob the other.

Kerner and his friend John Silva drove to Kerner’s grandparents’ home, each armed with a handgun. When Grill arrived at the home, Kerner fired six shots, then beat him with a wrench until he died.

Kerner then went outside and forced Lanham into the garage, telling her that she would also be killed if she told of what he had done. Though he initially agreed to let her go, Kerner shot Lanham in the head as she tried to leave, killing her.

After the killings, Kerner returned to his home in Valparaiso, drove his mother to the airport, went back to his grandparents’ house, got a haircut and spent the evening with his girlfriend. He eventually admitted to his girlfriend that he had killed Grill and Lanham. Though she didn’t initially believe him, Kerner later shared additional details with his girlfriend and threatened to hurt her and her family if she told anyone.

Kerner then returned to the crime scene, cleaning it up and placing the bodies into a vehicle, which he drove into the woods and set on fire. He finished cleaning about 90 minutes before his grandparents returned from a trip, at which point his grandfather discovered that his handgun was missing. Kerner claimed he had taken the gun for target practice.

Meanwhile, Grill and Lanham’s families began looking for the couple and learned that they had planned to meet up with Kerner. They contacted local police, who called Kerner. He claimed Grill had said he was going to travel to Illinois before their meeting, and then he never heard from him again.

Kerner’s girlfriend, Holly Letnich, eventually told her mother about the killings, and the family filed a report with the police. Their information led to the discovery of the burned vehicle and Grill and Lanham’s remains. Kerner was arrested the same day.

As the investigation began, law enforcement obtained a search warrant for Kerner’s iPhone and passcode. Silva also gave law enforcement two voice recordings from his iPhone: one capturing the shooting of Thomas and another capturing Kerner and Silva’s conversation about the shooting. Other evidence was found in the area linking Kerner to the killings.

Kerner was ultimately charged with two counts of murder, two counts of felony murder, two counts of Level 2 felony attempted robbery, one count of Level 4 felony arson and one count of Level 6 felony intimidation. He was tried in October 2020, with the state admitting evidence from Kerner and Silva’s iPhones over Kerner’s objection.

The jury convicted Kerner on all counts except the intimidation charge. The Porter Superior Court imposed an aggregate sentence of 179 years.

On appeal, Kerner challenged the admission of the iPhone evidence, the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the attempted robbery convictions and the appropriateness of his sentence, as well as a claim that his murder and attempted robbery convictions violated double jeopardy. The Court of Appeals did find a double jeopardy violation in the two attempted robbery convictions, but otherwise affirmed in full.

Specifically, the appellate court rejected Kerner’s argument that compelling him to provide his passcode violated his rights against self-incrimination pursuant to Seo v. State, 148 N.E.3d 952 (Ind. 2020). Judge Paul Mathias wrote that Kerner had actually volunteered his passcode, and he did not raise a Fifth Amendment challenge until almost two years after he voluntarily provided access.

As for Silva’s iPhone, the COA acknowledged testimony that the recordings had been altered but determined those alterations were insignificant. Instead, the court said there was significant evidence supporting the authenticity of the recordings.

The appellate court also found sufficient evidence to support Kerner’s conviction for attempted robbery causing serious bodily injury as to Grill. In a footnote, the court noted that Kerner had raised a similar claim as to his conviction of attempted robbery of Lanham, but the COA said it would not address that claim because it was throwing out that conviction on double jeopardy grounds.

“We reach this conclusion by applying our supreme court’s analysis in Powell, which controls when a single criminal act violates a single statute but results in multiple injuries,” Mathias wrote, citing Powell v. State, 151 N.E.3d256 (Ind. 2020).

He continued, “Although both Thomas and Molley suffered serious bodily injury, there was only one act of attempted robbery.  … While the serious bodily injury to a second victim can elevate the offense, it cannot form the basis of a separate attempted robbery. Accordingly, Kerner’s conviction for attempted armed robbery of Molley must be vacated.”

However, the court rejected Kerner’s argument that his convictions of murder and attempted robbery together violated double jeopardy, relying on Wadle v. State, 151 N.E.3d 227 (Ind. 2020).

Finally, the appellate panel rejected Kerner’s challenge to his sentence under Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B), though his sentence will be reduced to 154 years on remand when his attempted robbery conviction is vacated.

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