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Knapp v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

June 12, 2014

RANDY L. KNAPP, Appellant (Defendant),
STATE OF INDIANA, Appellee (Plaintiff)

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Appeal from the Greene Circuit Court, No. 28C01-1108-MR-1. The Honorable Erik A. Allen, Judge. On Direct Appeal from a Sentence of Life Imprisonment Without Parole.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Kimberly A. Jackson, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, Angela N. Sanchez, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Rush, Justice. Dickson, C.J., and Rucker, David, and Massa, JJ., concur.


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Rush, Justice.

Randy L. Knapp appeals his conviction for murdering Stacey Lawson and his sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (" LWOP" ). He challenges the admission of crime scene photographs and an expert witness's reliance on those photographs, the denial of his motion for mistrial, and the preliminary jury instructions in the penalty phase of his trial. He also contends that his LWOP sentence is supported by insufficient evidence, unconstitutionally based on uncharged, non-statutory aggravators, and either unconstitutionally disproportionate or inappropriate under Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B). We affirm in all respects.

Facts and Procedural History

Defendant was a de facto stepfather to Jeffrey Sims (having lived with Sims' mother for a number of years). Both men were methamphetamine addicts, and were living in a house (and living off of money) Sims had inherited. But in early August 2011, Sims committed suicide after his then-girlfriend--victim Stacey Lawson--broke up with him. Defendant blamed Lawson for Sims' death, and his anger and grief intensified after Sims' family excluded him from a memorial service and blocked his access to Sims' finances. Ever since Sims' death, he had been trying unsuccessfully to find (or at least contact) Lawson.

On August 19, 2011, he was able to contact her and make arrangements to meet her on the pretext of having money that Sims left for her. Before meeting her, Defendant told one person that he was " going to kill that bitch," and left a voicemail for another detailing his plans: " I'm gonna go meet somebody right now. You wouldn't believe who I'm gonna go meet. I won't say over the phone in case something happens." He continued, " I'm f--kin' raged and crazed and I'm gonna see this motherf--ker right now and I might beat her f--kin' brains out." The message concluded:

I ain't done, and . . . I don't care if I get half of what I want done done, as long as I get half of it done and, and I've done my f--kin' part. But I'm ready to go down, with bullets or whatever. If that's how they want to take me down, I'm ready today to go. . . . I'm headed to Greene County about sixt-- [call abruptly drops].

Both people recognized that Defendant was high on methamphetamine, consistent with his own declaration of being " raged and crazed." At about 4:00 p.m., Lawson got into a black Ford Taurus with Defendant, and was never seen alive again.

About twenty minutes after leaving Lawson's home, Defendant called one of his friends and said, " [Y]ou'll never guess

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who I got with me. . . . [T]he blonde haired bitch that [Sims] was dating. . . . I've got her up at the cemetery out in Newark and I'm going to get to the bottom of this." Defendant continued, " [B]itch[,] say something" --then after a moan or gasp in the background, he said, " I guess she can't speak, talk, she's choking." Later in the day, Defendant left several more incriminating voicemails for that friend--in one, declaring, " It's all comin' together, it's all gonna be fun when it's over. . . . I'm gonna be motherf--kin' laughin' about it. I don't care if I'm in jail or prison, they can all kiss my motherf--kin' ass. . . ." And in another, he stated " It's all over . . . . It's already done, . . . everything done. It's all about satisfaction." Through the rest of the day and the first part of the following day, Defendant told two friends that he had killed Lawson--and to one of them, smiled as he pantomimed beating her head with a large rock. And while Lawson's boyfriend was searching for her, Defendant lied to him about where they had been.

The next afternoon, Lawson's body was found at a cemetery in Newark, dragged into a wooded area near the gravesite of her 10-year-old brother, who died of cancer in 2008. (A neighbor later came forward, reporting that she had been walking her dog past the cemetery before 5:00 and saw a black car " with large headlights" like Defendant's Taurus backed up to that wooded area.) Lawson had been struck in the head with tremendous force, caving in a portion of her skull and causing a " hinge fracture" at the base of the skull--a type of injury that requires so much force that it usually occurs only in auto accidents, and results in near-instant death. Indeed, her head struck the ground hard enough to leave a divot in the dry August soil beneath her. About the same time as Lawson's body was discovered, Defendant left Walker another rambling, agitated voicemail calling himself " a smart meth-head" who would " plead insanity and blame it all on f--kin' meth."

Police arrested Defendant that same evening. During several interviews conducted intermittently over the course of about eight hours, he admitted picking up Lawson, but claimed he was at his Bloomington home at 4:00 and only picked up Lawson about 9:00 (and not from her home). Defendant said he and Lawson had driven around for awhile, and he then dropped her off at the roadside somewhere. But he admitted having his cell phone with him all day on the 19th and 20th--and when police pointed out that cell-phone location records and his phone's own call history disproved his story and matched Lawson's boyfriend's account, Defendant just insisted the phone records were incorrect. He was charged with Lawson's murder.

At trial, the State's case relied upon Defendant being the last person to see Lawson alive, blaming her for Sims' death, making incriminating statements before, during, and after the murder, and telling police a version of events inconsistent with his own cell-phone records. But the State also presented expert forensic evidence through Dr. Roland Kohr, who had performed Lawson's autopsy--and because his opinion of Lawson's time of death at trial differed from two preliminary opinions he had offered, he was cross-examined extensively (as further discussed below). The jury convicted Defendant of murder, and the case progressed to the penalty phase. The State sought LWOP based on Defendant having been on probation at the time of Lawson's murder, see Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(b)(9)(C) (2008); the jury recommended LWOP; and Defendant was sentenced accordingly. He appealed directly to this Court. See Ind. Appellate Rule 4(A)(1)(a).

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Additional details will be supplied where necessary.

Discussion and Decision

I. Standards of Review.

Before reaching the merits of this appeal, we address a procedural matter that affects several of the issues Defendant raises. As Defendant acknowledges, there was no timely objection raised at trial to Dr. Kohr's reliance on the crime-scene photographs (Part II.A.2 below), the penalty-phase preliminary jury instructions (Part II.C), or to the State's alleged reliance on improper penalty-phase aggravators (Part III.B). Failure to object at trial waives an issue on appeal unless the appellant can show fundamental error--that is, " an error that ma[de] a fair trial impossible or constitute[d a] clearly blatant violation[] of basic and elementary principles of due process presenting an undeniable and substantial potential for harm." Clark v. State, 915 N.E.2d 126, 131 (Ind. 2009). That exception is " extremely narrow," Benson v. State, 762 N.E.2d 748, 755 (Ind. 2002), and reaches only errors that are so blatant that the trial judge should have taken action sua sponte . Brewington v. State, 7 N.E.3d 946, 974 (Ind. 2014); accord Whiting v. State, 969 N.E.2d 24, 34 (Ind. 2012) (" A finding of fundamental error essentially means that the trial judge erred . . . by not acting when he or she should have . . . ." ). In sum, fundamental error is a daunting standard that applies " only in egregious circumstances." Brown v. State, 799 N.E.2d 1064, 1068 (Ind. 2003).

By contrast, Defendant's challenges to admission of the crime-scene photos (Part II.A.1) and denial of his motion for mistrial (Part II.B) were properly preserved and therefore do not face the hurdle of fundamental error. But the standard of review is steep nonetheless, requiring Defendant to show that the trial court abused its discretion--that its ruling was clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before it. Vaughn v. State, 971 N.E.2d 63, 67-68 (Ind. 2012) (denial of mistrial); Jackson v. State, 697 N.E.2d 53, 54 (Ind. 1998) (evidentiary rulings). The standards of review governing his remaining issues (Parts III.A and III.C.) are more nuanced, and are discussed in greater detail below.

II. Trial Issues.

A. Crime Scene Photographs .

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