Sheckells v. State

Docket Number22A-CR-2010
Decision Date28 August 2023
PartiesJacob A. Sheckells, Appellant-Defendant, v. State of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Pursuant to Ind. Appellate Rule 65(D), this Memorandum Decision is not binding precedent for any court and may be cited only for persuasive value or to establish res judicata, collateral estoppel, or law of the case.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Matthew J. McGovern Fishers, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Theodore E. Rokita Attorney General of Indiana Nicole D. Wiggins Indianapolis, Indiana



Case Summary

[¶1] Jacob Sheckells appeals his convictions and corresponding sentence for one count of sexual misconduct with a minor, as a Level 4 felony,[1] and one count of sexual misconduct with a minor, as a Level 5 felony.[2] We affirm.


[¶2] Sheckells raises two issues for our review:

1. Whether the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted certain evidence.
2. Whether the imposition of consecutive sentences was inappropriate in light of the nature of the offenses and his character.
Facts and Procedural History

[¶3] On October 1, 2021, fifteen-year-old K.T. went to spend the night at the home of Mary and Dwayne Sheckells, her great aunt and great uncle. Also at the house that night were Mary and Dwayne's son, Sheckells; G.M.; H.B.; and K.P. When K.T. first arrived, everyone was in the living room "just sitting around and talking." Tr. Vol. 2 at 216. At some point, K.T., G.M., H.B., and K.P. all went to K.P.'s room to "hang[] out[.]" Id. at 217. K.P. and H.B. were on K.P.'s bed while K.T. and G.M. were on a mattress that had been placed on the floor. Sometime between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m., the four girls fell asleep on their respective beds.

[¶4] A while later, K.T. woke up because she "felt something rubbing" her "inner thigh." Id. at 220. When she first opened her eyes, all K.T. could see was "a bigger shadow figure" over her. Id. at 221. As her eyes adjusted, she was able to see that the figure was Sheckells. Once she woke up, Sheckells "moved his hand real fast" and left the bedroom. K.T. was "scared he would come back in there," so she closed her eyes and pretended to fall back asleep. Id.

[¶5] Less than two minutes later, Sheckells reentered the bedroom, and "started rubbing on [her] leg again." Id. at 222. He then "twisted" her legs open, "stuck his hand down [her] pants" into her underwear, inserted his fingers into her vagina, and started "fingering" her. Id. at 222, 224. Sheckells then "grabbed" K.T.'s breast under her shirt with his other hand. Id. at 222. At one point, Sheckells moved his hand from her breast to her stomach and "pushed down," which "hurt [K.T.] so bad." Id. at 224-25. After approximately fifteen minutes, Sheckells "just got up and . . . walked out." Id. at 226.

[¶6] After Sheckells left, K.T. woke up G.M. and told her what had happened. G.M. contacted her brother and her aunt to come pick them up. G.M. then woke up H.B., and the three left with G.M.'s aunt and went to G.M.'s grandmother's house for the remainder of the night. The next morning, K.T. called her grandmother, Mary Small, with whom K.T. resided. When Small picked K.T. up, K.T. told her what had happened. Small then called the police and took K.T. for a forensic interview.

[¶7] The State charged Sheckells with one count of sexual misconduct with a minor, as a Level 4 felony, and one count of sexual misconduct with a minor, as a Level 5 felony. The court held a three-day jury trial beginning on June 13, 2022. During the trial, the State presented the testimony of Elizabeth Stinson, the forensic interviewer who had interviewed K.T. The State asked Stinson if she had "observe[d] anything in that interview that would be of importance to know for the jury." Id. at 208. Stinson responded that K.T. "did have signs of reliability[.]" Id. Sheckells objected on the ground that the testimony was improper vouching testimony under Indiana Evidence Rule 704(b). The court overruled the objection and allowed Stinson to continue. Stinson then testified that the signs of reliability K.T. had demonstrated included "[g]esturing," which is when a child will show her what "the perpetrator was doing." Id. Stinson continued that, when K.T. was describing the offense, "she was actually grabbing and squeezing and then moving her fingers . . . as she was describing how she was being touched." Id. at 209.

[¶8] The State also called K.T. as a witness, and K.T. testified about the offenses. In addition, the State presented the testimony of Small, G.M., H.B. and an officer with the Indiana State police. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Sheckells guilty as charged. During a sentencing hearing, the court identified as aggravating factors that "the harm, injury, loss, or damage suffered by the victim of these offenses was significant and greater than the elements necessary to prove the commission of the offenses," that Sheckells has a "history of criminal behavior," and that he had recently violated the conditions of his parole. Tr. Vol. 3 at 172. The court then identified as mitigating the fact that Sheckells had suffered a traumatic brain injury. The court found that the aggravators outweighed the mitigators and sentenced Sheckells to eight years executed at the Department of Correction for the Level 4 felony and to four years for the Level 5 felony, with two years executed and two years suspended. The court then ordered the sentences to run consecutively, for an aggregate sentence of twelve years, with ten years executed and two years suspended. This appeal ensued.

Discussion and Decision
Issue One: Admission of Evidence

[¶9] Sheckells first contends that the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted certain evidence. As our Supreme Court has stated:

Generally, a trial court's ruling on the admission of evidence is accorded "a great deal of deference" on appeal. Tynes v. State, 650 N.E.2d 685, 687 (Ind. 1995). "Because the trial court is best able to weigh the evidence and assess witness credibility, we review its rulings on admissibility for abuse of discretion" and only reverse "if a ruling is 'clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances and the error affects a party's substantial rights.'" Carpenter v. State, 18 N.E.3d 998, 1001 (Ind. 2014) (quoting Clark v. State, 994 N.E.2d 252, 260 (Ind. 2013)).

Hall v. State, 36 N.E.3d 459, 466 (Ind. 2015).

[¶10] Sheckells specifically contends that the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted Stinson's testimony about K.T.'s forensic interview because that testimony amounted to improper vouching testimony. Indiana Evidence Rule 704(b) provides that a witness "may not testify to opinions concerning intent, guilt, or innocence in a criminal case the truth or falsity of allegations; whether a witness has testified truthfully; or legal conclusions." Such testimony is generally forbidden because it "is considered an invasion of the province of the jurors in determining what weight they should place upon a witness's testimony." Alvarez-Madrigal v State, 71 N.E.3d 887, 892 (Ind.Ct.App. 2017).

[¶11] On appeal, Sheckells asserts that Stinson's testimony violated Indiana Evidence Rule 704(b) because it constituted "flagrant vouching testimony." Appellant's Br. at 15. The State does not dispute that the testimony was improper. Rather, the State "acknowledges that Stinson's testimony in this case was analogous to" testimony that this Court has previously found to be erroneous. Appellee's Br. at 12 (citing Norris v. State, 53 N.E.3d 512, 524 (Ind.Ct.App. 2016)). However, the State contends that "any error in this case was harmless." Id.

[¶12] It is well settled "that a claim of error in the admission or exclusion of evidence will not prevail on appeal 'unless a substantial right of the party is affected.'" Troutner v. State, 951 N.E.2d 603, 612 (Ind.Ct.App. 2011) (quoting Pruitt v. State, 834 N.E.2d 90, 117 (Ind. 2005)), trans. denied. That is, even if the trial court errs in admitting or excluding evidence, this Court will not reverse the defendant's conviction if the error is harmless. Caesar v. State, 139 N.E.3d 289, 292 (Ind.Ct.App. 2020). We "consider the likely impact of the improperly admitted or excluded evidence on a reasonable, average jury in light of all the evidence in the case." Hayko v. State, 211 N.E.3d 483, 492 (Ind. 2023). "Ultimately, the error's probable impact is sufficiently minor when- considering the entire record-our confidence in the outcome is not undermined." Id.

[¶13] Sheckells contends that the error in the admission of Stinson's testimony was not harmless because "this case came down entirely to K.T.'s credibility." Appellant's Br. at 16. And he asserts that "there can be no doubt that the error in allowing a forensic interviewer to comment directly on K.T.'s veracity substantially affected the jury's deliberations." Id. We cannot agree.

[¶14] Here, during the trial, K.T. testified at length and in detail about the offenses, including that Sheckells had "twist[ed]" his fingers while they were in her vagina. Tr. Vol. 2 at 225. And K.T.'s testimony never wavered. In addition, and contrary to Sheckells' assertions on appeal, other witnesses provided testimony to corroborate K.T.'s testimony.[3] In particular, Small testified that, when she picked K.T. up on the morning of October 2, K.T. "told [her] what [had] happened." Tr. Vol. 2 at 188. Then, based on K.T.'s disclosure Small testified that she called the police and took K.T. for a forensic interview. In addition, G.M. testified that, when K.T. woke her up...

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