Willsey v. State

Decision Date01 September 1998
Docket NumberNo. 83S00-9702-CR-113,83S00-9702-CR-113
Citation698 N.E.2d 784
PartiesDebra J. WILLSEY, Appellant (Defendant below), v. STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff below).
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

Susan K. Carpenter, Public Defender, Lorraine L. Rodts, Deputy Public Defender, Indianapolis, for Appellant.

Jeffrey A. Modisett, Attorney General, Christopher L. Lafuse, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, for Appellee.

BOEHM, Justice.

In this direct appeal from a conviction for murder Debra J. Willsey contends that:

1) statements Willsey made to police during custodial interrogation should have been suppressed;

2) the State made impermissible use of Willsey's invocation of her Miranda rights;

3) bank records should not have been admitted into evidence;

4) her counsel rendered ineffective assistance; and

5) her sentence was manifestly unreasonable.

We affirm the trial court.

Factual Background

On February 24, 1995 Debra Willsey contacted police to report the death of Robert E. Biddle. At the time of his death the sixty-eight year old Biddle suffered from heart and lung disease, diabetes, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. He was living with Willsey, age forty, and April York, nineteen. He had known these two women only a short time. Authorities did not suspect foul play until months later, when they were prompted to investigate by one of Biddle's sisters who had belatedly learned of his death.

The Investigation

Police soon uncovered several suspicious facts. The night Biddle died, Willsey and York had taken him to the emergency room at Union Hospital in Terre Haute where he complained of shortness of breath. Doctors had performed a variety of tests and determined that he was fit to be released. Linda Palmer, a registered nurse, told police that as she was discharging Biddle he said he did not want to go home with Willsey and York because the two forced him to live in a filthy environment and had stolen his money. When Palmer asked Biddle why he did not tell the two to leave, he said he was afraid that if he did they would harm him. Police also learned that during Biddle's short association with Willsey and York his bank account balance of over $12,000 had been depleted. According to the funeral home that handled Biddle's burial, two months before his death Biddle had gone to the funeral home with Willsey and made changes in his funeral arrangements that put Willsey in charge of his burial. An official at the funeral home told police that the day of Biddle's death Willsey called the funeral home, told them not to publish an obituary, and assured them that she would inform Biddle's family of his death. Police had been told by the family that they had never heard from Willsey and had learned of the death only months later from the published notice of Willsey's attempt to probate Biddle's will. Police also discovered that York had signed Biddle's interment papers posing as Biddle's granddaughter. 1

Based on this and other information, police picked York up for questioning. York told police that after she, Willsey, and Biddle had returned from the hospital, she had gone to sleep and was wakened by a moaning sound. She looked into Biddle's bedroom and saw that Willsey had pinned Biddle to the bed and was suffocating him with a pillow. Police arrested Willsey that same day. Additional information was uncovered after the arrest. Based on Biddle's voiced concerns at the hospital on the night of his death, Nurse Palmer had requested that Sheriff Pete Jackson send someone from the Adult Services Department to visit Biddle at home the next day. Sheriff Jackson had responded to Palmer's call by telephoning the hospital where he spoke with Willsey and told her that someone from Adult Services would visit the next day. Police also learned that at the hospital Biddle had accused Willsey of taking $200 from his wallet.

April York's Version

Medical experts at trial agreed that the medical evidence was consistent with both suffocation and death from natural causes. As a result, Willsey's conviction depended in large part on York's credibility. York testified at length to details of her and Willsey's relationship with Biddle, and to the murder she claimed to have witnessed. Her testimony tracked the story she gave to police at the outset of the investigation. What follows is a partial description of that account. York first met Willsey in the spring of 1994 when Willsey employed York to do roofing work. York moved in with Willsey in June to escape a painful divorce of her mother and stepfather, and for a brief period the two were lovers. Willsey was unemployed and had no income. At Willsey's direction, York borrowed small sums of money and food from her grandparents and turned the money over to Willsey. Willsey instructed York to call her "mom" in public to obscure the nature of their relationship. In early October 1994, the pair met Biddle at a local restaurant. Biddle, a veteran who had never married and had no children, was living in a housing facility for senior citizens. Willsey befriended Biddle and over the next eight days, Biddle signed four checks totaling $5125 made payable to cash and written in Willsey's hand. Soon Biddle and Willsey opened a joint checking account. On the twelfth day of their acquaintance, Biddle moved in with Willsey and York and soon signed another check for $1000, again written in Willsey's hand but this time made out to Willsey. Five days after moving in, Biddle changed his will to disinherit his older sister and make Willsey the sole beneficiary and executrix. Checks, bank records, and Biddle's will corroborated these details.

Almost immediately after Biddle moved in, Willsey and York urged him to look for a larger house. Sometime in December he bought a home and the three relocated to Universal in Vermillion County. At both locations, Biddle paid most of the bills and living expenses. 2 In the meantime, Biddle began to complain about their living conditions. Willsey owned seventeen dogs, two of whom were dead in the garage refrigerator and at least five of whom lived in the home. The house was littered with dog feces, which became a subject of Biddle's occasional complaints to York, who was supposed to clean it up. Biddle also started to complain about the financial arrangements. In November he took Willsey's name off the joint checking account and in December he paid off and destroyed his credit card which had been charged over its limit.

York testified that at the hospital the night of Biddle's death Willsey had taken $200 from Biddle's wallet and then reported the wallet as missing. York said that when Biddle requested to speak to the doctors alone, Willsey had become angry. As soon as the trio returned home that night, Biddle had gone to his room and closed the door. Willsey was angry and started rambling, saying that "she was tired of being accused of ... taking everything .... what am I going to do now. This isn't working out as I planned, what I am going to do now?" York then went to sleep, awoke to a moaning sound, ventured to Biddle's room, and saw Willsey forcing a pillow onto Biddle's face. York left the room at Willsey's direction. When Willsey emerged from the room she said "I can't believe I did this," and then made York touch the dead body, saying that Biddle "won't have to bitch at [Willsey] about anything, and he won't have any more breathing problems."

After the death, York said she observed Willsey forge three checks on Biddle's account, all dated the day of his death. Willsey handled the funeral arrangements and arranged to receive a refund from a "funeral trust" Biddle had established at a funeral home even though the terms of the trust called for refunds to go to Biddle's sister. When the error was discovered by the home Willsey refused to return the money. Willsey also had York call Biddle's insurance company, apparently believing Biddle had a life policy with a death benefit of $74,000. When it turned out the policy carried no death benefit, according to York, Willsey was "furious." York admitted to posing as Biddle's granddaughter on the interment papers.

Willsey's Arrest and Statements to Police

Willsey's arrest took place at her home seven months after the death. At the police station she received Miranda warnings, executed a waiver of rights, and was questioned for about ninety minutes in an audio taped statement. In response to police questioning she made statements inconsistent with York's account or with other evidence. Specifically, she told police that she and Biddle had planned to be married and that they never fought about money. She denied taking the $200 from his wallet at the hospital. She said that the day after she met Biddle he called her on the telephone in a very friendly way. However, Willsey had no telephone. Willsey said that Biddle loved the dogs and that she moved with Biddle to the new house in Universal only because he wanted to move. She said both she and Biddle had paid for the house. She also said that Biddle was very sick on the night of his death and said several times: "I'm going to die tonight." She reiterated that York discovered the body when she brought Biddle his breakfast, which was the same account she and York had given to the police on the day of the death.

The transcript of her statement was not offered into evidence and Willsey did not testify at trial. However, the interrogating officer, Trooper Brent Johnson, gave the foregoing account of Willsey's statement. Johnson's characterization of Willsey's statement pointed out that the statement was often internally inconsistent and also conflicted with York's statement and trial testimony. Johnson said that he "seriously questioned [Willsey's] truthfulness." York also made inconsistent statements and admitted at trial that she had lied to police on a number of occasions, including at times in her initial statement. York said that on those...

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