Pruitt v. State, 15S00-0109-DP-393.

CourtSupreme Court of Indiana
Citation834 N.E.2d 90
Docket NumberNo. 15S00-0109-DP-393.,15S00-0109-DP-393.
PartiesTommy R. PRUITT, Appellant (Defendant below), v. STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff below).
Decision Date13 September 2005
834 N.E.2d 90
Tommy R. PRUITT, Appellant (Defendant below),
STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff below).
No. 15S00-0109-DP-393.
Supreme Court of Indiana.
September 13, 2005.

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William Van Der Pol, Jr., Martinsville, Teresa D. Harper, Bloomington, for Appellant.

Steve Carter, Attorney General of Indiana, Andrew A. Kobe, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, for Appellee.

BOEHM, Justice.

Tommy Pruitt was charged with the murder of Deputy Daniel Starnes of the Morgan County Sheriff's Department. The prosecutor sought the death penalty based on the fact that the victim was a law enforcement officer killed in the course of his duties. Pruitt sought to have the death penalty charge dismissed on the ground that he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for the death penalty. The trial court denied the motion, and a jury subsequently convicted Pruitt and recommended death. The trial court imposed that sentence. We conclude that the trial court's finding that Pruitt is not mentally retarded is supported by the evidence. We also hold that, with one exception, the Indiana statutory provisions governing determination of mental retardation are consistent with the Eighth Amendment as explained in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002). We affirm Pruitt's conviction and sentence.

Factual and Procedural Background

On June 14, 2001, Morgan County Deputy Sheriff Daniel Starnes was driving his unmarked patrol car on a routine assignment serving warrants. His son, Ryan Starnes, accompanied him as part of a college internship. A car driven by Pruitt caught Starnes's attention and Starnes followed Pruitt for some distance, observing increasingly erratic driving. Eventually Pruitt came to a stop and Starnes pulled in behind Pruitt's car, turned on his flashing lights, and approached Pruitt's vehicle on foot. Starnes obtained Pruitt's driver's license and registration and returned to his vehicle to call the information in. In response, Starnes was told that a recent robbery report suggested Pruitt might be in possession of stolen weapons. As Starnes approached Pruitt's car for a second time, Pruitt emerged with a handgun and the two exchanged gunfire. Pruitt was shot at least seven times and Starnes was struck by five shots. Pruitt also fired at Ryan Starnes, who had remained in Starnes's car.

Starnes was taken by helicopter to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he underwent surgery. Starnes's condition initially stabilized to the point that he no longer required intensive care, but shortly thereafter he developed an infection. He ultimately died on July 10, 2001.

While Starnes was still living, the state charged Pruitt with two counts of attempted murder, possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon, two counts of possession

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of a handgun without a license, resisting law enforcement, and three counts of receiving stolen property. On August 27, 2001, the state amended the attempted murder count to charge Pruitt with murder and added another count of receiving stolen property. The state requested the death penalty based on the fact that Starnes was a law enforcement officer. A jury found Pruitt guilty of murder, attempted murder, possession of a handgun without a license, resisting law enforcement, four counts of receiving stolen property, and also the lesser-included offense of aggravated battery. At the penalty phase, the jury found that Pruitt killed a law enforcement officer in the course of his duties, determined that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances, and recommended a sentence of death. The jury reconvened for a third phase of the trial and found Pruitt guilty of possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon and possession of a handgun without a license as a Class C felony, both of which had been reserved for a bifurcated trial. The jury also found Pruitt to be a habitual offender. The trial court sentenced Pruitt to death for the murder and to an aggregate term of 115 years for the remaining counts. Pursuant to Indiana Appellate Rule 4(A)(1)(a), appeal is directly to this Court.

I. Mental Retardation

Pruitt contends that he is mentally retarded and therefore ineligible for the death penalty under both Indiana state law and the Eighth Amendment as explained in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002).

A. Burden of Proof and Standard of Proof

Since 1994, Indiana has prohibited the execution of the mentally retarded. Ind.Code § 35-36-9-6 (2004) (as added by P.L. 158-1994, Sec. 3). Indiana Code sections 35-36-9-1 through 7 provide the procedures through which a trial court is to determine whether a defendant is mentally retarded and therefore not eligible for the death penalty. Indiana Code section 35-36-9-4 places the burden on the defendant to "prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is a mentally retarded individual."

In Atkins, the United States Supreme Court held that the execution of a mentally retarded defendant violates the prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishments" found in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Pruitt argues that, in light of the holding that executing a mentally retarded defendant violates the Eighth Amendment, federal due process is violated by the Indiana statutory provision placing on the defendant the burden of proving mental retardation and requiring it to be established under a standard of clear and convincing evidence.

The issue of federal constitutional limits on state burdens of proof and state standards of proof was first addressed in the context of issues other than mental retardation. Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 97 S.Ct. 2319, 53 L.Ed.2d 281 (1977) held that it is normally within the power of a state to regulate trial procedure, including burdens of production and persuasion. Id. at 201-02, 97 S.Ct. 2319. Patterson upheld the constitutionality of a New York statute requiring a defendant in a murder trial to carry the burden of proving the affirmative defense of "extreme emotional disturbance" under New York law, a rough equivalent of Indiana's "sudden heat." Id. at 198, 97 S.Ct. 2319. The Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause does not proscribe a state rule of criminal procedure

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unless the procedure "offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental." Id. at 202, 97 S.Ct. 2319 (quoting Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 523, 78 S.Ct. 1332, 2 L.Ed.2d 1460 (1958); Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 798, 72 S.Ct. 1002, 96 L.Ed. 1302 (1952); Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105, 54 S.Ct. 330, 78 L.Ed. 674 (1934)). Placing the burden on the defendant to prove this defense did not offend any such principle.

In Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 112 S.Ct. 2572, 120 L.Ed.2d 353 (1992), the Supreme Court relied on Patterson in sustaining a state burden of proof rule as to incompetency to stand trial. The Court reaffirmed that "the criminal trial of an incompetent defendant violates due process" Id. at 453, 112 S.Ct. 2572, but held that requiring a defendant to prove his incompetence to stand trial by a preponderance of the evidence did not offend due process. Medina first examined historical and contemporary practices in determining a defendant's competency to stand trial and found "no historical basis for concluding that the allocation of the burden of proving incompetence to the defendant violates due process." Id. at 448, 112 S.Ct. 2572. The Court then went on "to consider whether the rule transgresses any recognized principle of `fundamental fairness' in operation" and found that it did not. Id. Because placing the burden of showing incompetency neither offended fundamental fairness nor violated traditional practice, it was consistent with the requirements of due process.

The burden of proof is one issue and the standard of required proof is another. In Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348, 116 S.Ct. 1373, 134 L.Ed.2d 498 (1996), the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the Oklahoma requirement that a defendant prove his incompetence to stand trial by clear and convincing evidence. Id. at 350, 116 S.Ct. 1373. Following an analysis similar to that in Medina, Cooper first explained that the right not to be tried while incompetent is fundamental. But, as Medina held, placing the burden on the defendant to overcome a presumption of competence does not violate any fundamental principle because it affects only the few cases where the evidence as to competence is "in equipoise." Id. at 355, 112 S.Ct. 2572. The Court then considered the standard of proof required to establish a defendant's incompetency. After reviewing historical practice and finding that proof by a preponderance of the evidence is the standard in the great majority of United States jurisdictions, the Court concluded that "the heightened standard [of clear and convincing evidence] offends a principle of justice that is deeply `rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people.'" Id. at 362, 112 S.Ct. 2572.

The Court then "turn[ed] next to a consideration of whether the rule exhibits `fundamental fairness in operation.'" Id. In determining whether a heightened standard of proof was consistent with fundamental fairness, the Court balanced the opposing interests of the state and the defendant. The Court explained that if an erroneous determination of competence is made, the defendant will be forced into a trial at which he cannot communicate effectively with counsel. He therefore may be unable to...

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