Attorneys for Appellee
Attorney General of Indiana
Andrew L. Hedges
Deputy Attorney General
IN THE INDIANA SUPREME COURT
Appellant (Defendant below),
STATE OF INDIANA, Appellee (Plaintiff below ).
) Supreme Court No.
APPEAL FROM THE JOHNSON SUPERIOR COURT
The Honorable James K. Coachys, Judge
Cause No. 41D01-9805-CF-00065
June 28, 2001
Several days after the killing, the State charged Defendant with the knowing murder
See footnote Indiana law authorizes the State to seek a sentence of
death or of life without parole "by alleging, on a page separate from
the rest of the charging instrument, the existence of at least one of
the aggravating circumstances" listed in the statute governing the imposition of such sentences.
In May, 1998, the State made the requisite filing to seek a
death sentence, alleging that Defendant intentionally killed Stapleton while committing a robbery.
(Intentionally killing while committing robbery is an aggravating circumstance listed in the death
) The State also amended the charging information to add felony
murder,See footnote conspiracy to commit robbery, and robbery counts.
In October, 1999, the State made the requisite filing to seek a sentence of life without parole, again alleging as the aggravating circumstance that Defendant intentionally killed Stapleton while committing a robbery. At the same time, Defendant and the State entered into and filed a plea agreement. Under its terms, Defendant pled guilty to Felony Murder and admitted the charged aggravating circumstance of intentionally killing while committing robbery. See footnote In exchange, the State dropped all other charges and agreed not to seek the death penalty. The plea agreement stipulated that [t]he parties may present evidence relevant to the aggravating and/or mitigating circumstances listed in the statute governing a sentence of life without parole. (Id.) The parties also agreed that the trial court could decide to sentence Defendant either to life without parole or to a term of years. (Id.)
Unlike a case in which the State seeks a sentence of life without
parole that goes to trial, there is no sentencing phase before a jury
when a defendant pleads guilty to the unde
rlying murder. Rather, sentencing is
conducted entirely by the court.
Under the statute, the court is required
to find that the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt at least
one of the aggravating circumstances set forth in the statute.See footnote The court
must then weigh the aggravating circumstance or circumstances so proven against any mitigating
circumstances that it finds to exist.
A sentence of life without parole
is only permissible if the court finds that the aggravating circumstance or circumstances
outweigh any mitigating circumstances.
At the sentencing hearing in this case, the
State presented witnesses and evidence regarding the details of the crime and Defendant
presented evidence in an effort to demonstrate the existence of mitigating circumstances.
The trial court subsequently sentenced Defendant to life in prison without parole.
A sentence of life imprisonment without parole is imposed under the same standards
and is subject to the same requirements as the death penalty.
v. State, 737 N.E.2d 374, 382 (Ind. 2000), rehg denied; Nicholson v. State,
734 N.E.2d 1047, 1048 (Ind. 2000), rehg denied; Rawley v. State, 724 N.E.2d
1087, 1091 (Ind. 2000); Ajabu v. State, 693 N.E.2d 921, 936 (Ind. 1998).
Defendant contends that the trial court considered non-statutory aggravating circumstances in violation
of Bivins v. State, 642 N.E.2d 928, 955 (Ind. 1994), cert denied, 516
U.S. 1077 (1996). In Bivins, this Court held that the aggravating circumstances
in a capital case are narrowed to those charged by the State and
found beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. When the death sentence is
sought, courts must henceforth limit the aggravating circumstances eligible for consideration to those
specified in the death penalty statute, Indiana Code Section 35-50-2-9(b). Id.
Defendants plea agreement stated that he would admit to and agree that, as
ggravating circumstance under [Ind. Code] § 35-50-2-9(b)(1)(G), he committed the murder by
intentionally killing the victim while committing robbery. During the sentencing hearing, the
State presented evidence and called two witnesses. It also introduced photographs of
the victim and robbery scene, a list of the weapons that were stolen
and subsequently recovered, and an autopsy photo showing the victims wounds. The
State indicated that it called its first witness, Officer John Laut, to be
the sponsor of [the] photographs, autopsy and weapons list. The State also
called one of Defendants accomplices to testify as to what took place inside
the gun store when the robbery took place.
There is no indication that the trial court considered non-statutory aggravating circu
hearing the testimony of the two State witnesses. Indeed, the court in
its sentencing order explicitly said that it had considered nothing else in aggravation
other than the charged aggravating circumstance.
We believe this information was properly presented to the trial court for at
least two reasons. First, although Defendant stipulated that he had intentionally killed
Stapleton while committing robbery, the trial court still had an independent obligation under
the statute to find that the State had proved the existence of the
aggravating circumstance beyond a reaso
nable doubt. See Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9 (1998).
It was certainly prudent, if not necessary, for the State to make
such a showing independent of Defendants statement. Second, in determining whether life
without parole is an appropriate sentence, the court must weigh aggravating and mitigating
circumstances. See id. Moreover, the trial court must issue a detailed
explanation of the factors and the weighing process that lead to its determination
to impose the sentence. See Harrison v. State, 644 N.E.2d 1243, 1262
(Ind. 1995), cert denied, 529 U.S. 1088 (2000). To perform its weighing
responsibilities and to issue a sufficiently detailed order, the trial court needed to
know the details of Defendants crime. The testimony and evidence presented by
the State was relevant to that end.
As described in Part I,
supra, the trial courts duty when considering whether
to impose a sentence of life without parole following a guilty plea includes
the following steps. First, the trial court must find that the State
has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one of the aggravating
circumstances listed in the death penalty statute exists.
Second, the trial court
must find that any mitigating circumstances that exist are outweighed by the aggravating
circumstance or circumstances.
Third, the trial court must make a record of
its reasons for selecting the sentence that it imposes. See Harrison v.
State, 644 N.E.2d at 1262. In arriving at its own separate determination
as to whether the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, the sentencing court
is to point out its employment of this process in specific and clear
findings. Id. The trial court's statement of reasons (i) must identify
each mitigating and aggravating circumstance found, (ii) must include the specific facts and
reasons which lead the court to find the existence of each such circumstance,
(iii) must articulate that the mitigating and aggravating circumstances have been evaluated and
balanced in determination of the sentence, and (iv) must set forth the trial
court's personal conclusion that the sentence is appropriate punishment for this offender and
this crime. Id.
At the sentencing hearing, Defendant argued that the following mitigating circu mstances existed: Defendant had no significant history of prior criminal conduct; Defendant was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance when the murder was committed; the victim was a participant in, or consented to, [D]efendants conduct; Defendant was an accomplice in a murder committed by another person and his participation was relatively minor; Defendant was acting under the substantial domination of another person; Defendants capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was substantially impaired as a result of mental disease or defect or intoxication.
The trial court considered each of the purported mitigating circumstances in a careful and complete sentencing order that complied in all respects with applicable law. The trial court weighed the aggravating circumstance with the mitigating circumstances. The only a ggravating circumstance, which Defendant stipulated to in the plea agreement, was intentionally killing during the commission of a robbery. The trial court ultimately found that the aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Although we give some attention to each of Defendant's claims, particularly given the care and comprehensiveness of the trial court's order, we find no basis for a detailed review and re-examination of its findings and conclusions.
Lack of Prior Criminal History. Although Defendant argues that the trial court
did not give enough weight to the mitigating factor that he has no
significant history of prior criminal conduct, see Appellants Br. at 14-15, the trial
court's sentencing order did review Defendants lack of significant prior criminal history, ultimately
finding it a mitigating circumstance with significant weight. As such, Defendant's argument
is essentially that the trial court did not give this factor enough weight
to equal or outweigh the effect of the aggravating circumstance.
We find the trial courts analysis supported by the evidence. Defendants criminal history was slight but he had been convicted of carrying a firearm without a permit on November 19, 1996, and had committed several uncharged criminal acts shortly before he murdered Stapleton. While Defendant argues that his handgun conviction resulted only after he voluntarily summoned the police so that he could dispose of two guns (an AK-47 and a shotgun), he intentionally attempted to withhold two other firearms from the police on that occasion.
Influence of Extreme Mental or Emotional Disturbance. Defendant argues that the court did not give enough weight to the mitigating circumstance that he was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance when the murder was committed. Defendant contends that the trial court placed insufficient weight on the mitigating circumstance that he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. See Appellants Br. at 25. In particular, he contends that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder impaired his ability to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirement s of law.
During the sentencing hearing, Defendant offered testimony to show that he was s
mentally or emotionally disturbed at the time of the murder. Pamela Porter
testified that Defendant was abused as a child and that his abuse contributed
to a feeling of insecurity. According to Porter, Defendant felt alienated throughout
his childhood, especially because nobody intervened on his behalf. At the time
of the murder, Defendant again felt unsafe, this time because of local gang
activity. Porter testified that Defendants fear from the gang activity in the
area set off emotional triggers ... that related back to his childhood.
Specifically, Defendant had feelings of impending doom, and a desire to protect himself
and one of his juvenile accomplices, Clayton Holmes.
Dr. John P. Wilson, a specialist in post-traumatic stress disorders testified that Defe
was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Dr. Wilson testified that Defendant underwent
a psycho-biological change as a response to childhood abuse. According to Dr.
Wilson, Defendant suffere[d] from the effects of his childhood abuse that take[s] the
form of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder and other features that go with
that, which [Dr. Wilson] would include as depression and also personality alterations.
Dr. Wilson also testified that Defendant felt that he and Clayton were in
danger from a gang. Due to Defendants psychological disorders, Defendant felt the
need to protect hi
mself and Clayton. Defendant sought out help from authorities
to no avail and finally decided to take action himself. Dr. Wilson
testified that Defendant might have shot the clerk because, whether or not the
clerk was reaching for the gun, Defendant may have perceived that the clerk
was going for his gun.
The trial court found that the mitigating circumstance that Defendant was under the
influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance (in particular, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) when
the murder was committed did exist. The trial court placed some, but
less than significant, weight on it. We find the record supports the
trial court's conclusion. The trial court considered the evidence of Defendants attachment to
Holmes, his feelings of i
nsecurity, and his perception that society had failed to
protect him. The trial court concluded:
[T]his mitigating circumstance does exist and the court gives it some weight ...,
but less than significant weight because there was no evidence that Defe
Traumatic Stress Disorder in any way prevented him from knowing right from wrong,
or prevented him from making choices about his conduct, or justified or excused
the act of intentionally killing another human being.
(R. at 518.) The record indicates that the trial court carefully scrutinized
and evaluated the psychological evidence. The psychological evidence presented by Defendant does
suggest that his traumatic childhood contributed to a heightened feeling that he needed
to protect himself and Clayton. This could explain Defendants decision to rob
a gun store. Defe
ndants psychological disorder is less convincing as a mitigating
circumstance in respect of his shooting Stapleton multiple times with no provocation.
We find the trial courts analysis supported by the record. Defendant
shot an unarmed man in the course of a robbery and, according to
Defendants own witnesses, he knew right from wrong. The claim that he
shot Stapleton as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or of feelings
of insecurity caused by a troubled childhood seems highly attenuated.
Victim Contribution to the Crime. Defendant agues that the court abused its
discretion by failing to find as a mitigating circumstance that the victim contributed
to the crime. Defendant directs this Court to his own statements indicating
that at the time of the shooting, he thought Stapleton was reaching for
a gun. See Appellants Br. at 20. Even if this were
so, it would not constitute a circumstance of a victim contributing to the
crime. As such, we find the record supports the trial court's finding
that Stapleton did not contribute to the crime. Furthermore, during the sentencing
hearing, one of Defendant's accomplices testified that the victim had his hands up
when Defendant shot him. And Defendant's sentencing memorandum concedes that [n]one of
the evidence before the court gives rise to this mitigating circumstance. (R.
Domination of another. Defendant argues as a mitigating circumstance that he was
acting under the domination of another person. He contends that the trial
court failed to consider the ... the relationship between himself and one of
his juvenile accomplices, Clayton Holmes. The trial court considered this argument, finding:
Defendant argues that the systematic abuse perpetrated upon him throughout his childhood severely
retarded his emotional maturity such that he had the maturity and reasoning of
his teen-age co-defendants. He further asserts that because he perceived his adopted
brother, Clayton Holmes, was at risk and that Clayton Holmes was the one
more interested in the robbery, that somehow Defendant was acting in some degree
under the domination and effect of his relationship with Clayton Holmes.
(R. at 516.) (quotations in original) The trial court concluded that there
credible evidence presented that it was Clayton Holmes who instigated and
planned the robbery and there was no credible evidence that Defendant was acting
under the substantial domination of Clayton Holmes. (R. at 517) (emphases in
original.). The record supports the trial court's finding.
SHEPARD, C.J., and DICKSON, BOEHM, and RUCKER, JJ., concur.