Teen who got life sentence for murdering younger brother didn’t receive ineffective assistance, IN Supreme Court rules

A man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of killing his younger brother as a teenager did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel during sentencing, Indiana Supreme Court justices concluded Wednesday.

Andrew Conley, who was 17 when he murdered his 10-year-old brother during a “wrestling match,” was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2010 following a guilty plea. The Indiana Supreme Court previously upheld his sentence on direct appeal, but the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed the denial of his petition for post-conviction relief in February 2021 on grounds that Conley’s trial counsel was “wholly deficient” at sentencing.

Deviating from that conclusion, justices in a Wednesday decision affirmed the post-conviction court’s finding that Conley did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel during his sentencing.

On post-conviction appeal, Conley raised several evidentiary issues and argued his counsel was deficient in the handling of records, lay witnesses and expert witnesses.

He also maintained he received ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to provide proper advice on a guilty plea, and that his plea was not knowing, voluntary and intelligent. Additionally, Conley argued the post-conviction court should vacate his sentence because of newly discovered evidence, and that his counsel was ineffective for failing to request permission to rebrief or present a Miller v. Alabama argument in the rehearing brief.

On the latter issues, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed the COA. But the high court affirmed the post-conviction court as to Conley’s arguments regarding evidence, records and witnesses.

The Supreme Court appeared skeptical of some of Conley’s assertions during oral arguments last September. Then on Wednesday, in holding that Conley did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, the justices determined his counsel was not ineffective for failing to present evidence on his age and juvenile brain development.

“Our Court of Appeals reversed the post-conviction court on a ground Conley did not raise on appeal,” Justice Steven David wrote. “It found counsel was deficient for not presenting evidence of juvenile brain development and juveniles’ lesser moral culpability, as discussed in U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), and Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010). We agree with the State that an appellate court’s role is an impartial adjudicator, not an advocate.”

Further, the court noted Roper and Graham’s holdings were not directly applicable to Conley’s case and, therefore, neither case clearly applied to or otherwise conflicted with the facts in Conley’s case. As a result, the high court concluded that while Conley’s counsel could have brought the line of cases regarding juvenile brain development to the court’s attention, the failure to do so did not fall below prevailing professional norms.

As for Conley’s age, the justices noted the trial court considered it, found it to be mitigating and explained in great detail why it gave that factor only some weight.

“… (W)e consider Conley I to be an important guidepost for juvenile LWOP cases where, even considering the notable differences between juveniles and adults, the juvenile’s crimes are so reprehensible and heinous that an LWOP sentence would be appropriate,” David wrote, citing Conley v. State, 972 N.E. 2d 864 (Ind. 2012).

Justices also found Conley’s counsel was not ineffective for failing to call certain witnesses close to Conley, failing to challenge the state’s expert regarding the factual issues concerning the nature of the crime or failing to properly challenge the state’s experts regarding Conley’s mental health. As for lay witnesses, “(t)he fact that counsel did not call every person Conley knew or present cumulative evidence regarding how his crime was out of character does not constitute deficient performance,” the court held.

Counsel was also not ineffective in failing to more thoroughly investigate either through an investigator, or by not requesting Conley’s jail records, the high court concluded.

Additionally, it found that his Appellate Rule 7(B) arguments were barred by res judicata, and that Conley’s case does not present “extraordinary circumstances” sufficient to overcome that bar.

“Therefore, in light of the facts in the record, which we will not reweigh, Conley has not demonstrated that he received ineffective assistance of counsel,” David concluded. “Moreover, Conley has not met his burden to show that counsel’s performance fell objectively below the prevailing professional norms or that he was prejudiced by any of counsel’s alleged errors.”

Chief Justice Loretta Rush concurred in result without a separate opinion.

The case is Andrew Conley v. State of Indiana, 21S-PC-256.

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