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Weisheit v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

February 18, 2015

JEFFREY A. WEISHEIT, Appellant (Defendant below),
STATE OF INDIANA, Appellee (Plaintiff below)

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the Clark Circuit Court, No. 10C01-1008-MR-00601. The Honorable Daniel E. Moore, Judge. On Direct Appeal from a Sentence of Death.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: Steven E. Ripstra, Ripstra Law Office Jasper, Indiana; Thomas A. Dysert, Petersburg, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana; James B. Martin, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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


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David, Justice.

Jeffrey Weisheit was convicted of murdering eight-year-old Alyssa Lynch and five-year-old Caleb Lynch and of arson resulting in serious bodily injury. In accordance with the jury's recommendation, the trial court sentenced him to death. On direct appeal, he claims tat the trial court erred in excluding a prison administration expert from testifying that he could be safely housed in prison for the remainder of his natural life, and he raises issues related to the sufficiency of the evidence underlying his convictions, the denial of for-cause challenges during jury selection, an unauthorized communication with the jury, the suppression of statements he made to police, his death sentence, and the consideration of mitigating circumstances. After careful review, we affirm Weisheit's convictions and sentence.

Facts and Procedural History

Early in the morning of April 10, 2010, the German Township Fire Department arrived at Weisheit's Evansville, Indiana home, which was engulfed in flames. After the fire was extinguished, investigators

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found the bodies of eight-year-old Alyssa Lynch and five-year-old Caleb Lynch. The children and their pregnant mother Lisa Lynch, Weisheit's girlfriend, had been living with Weisheit since 2008. On the night of the fire, Weisheit was home with the children while Lisa worked.

Alyssa was found in a closet, where she had either been trapped inside or attempted to flee the fire. Over ninety percent of her body was charred black, and a pathologist thought it possible that she burned while she was still alive or as she asphyxiated to death from soot and smoke inhalation. She likely experienced a sensation similar to drowning in her final moments.

Also charred beyond recognition, Caleb was found on his mattress, hog-tied with duct tape and with a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch washcloth stuffed in his mouth and secured by duct tape. A railroad flare had been placed in his underwear, and another railroad flare was found under his body. The flare in his underwear burnt his left thigh while he was still alive and conscious. He died in agony of suffocation from soot and smoke inhalation.

The previous day, Weisheit quit his job and withdrew all of the money in his bank account. Earlier in 2010, he stopped paying for the engagement ring that he had placed on layaway and communicated to two co-workers plans to harm Lisa, reportedly because he may have doubted that the unborn child was his. He talked of going out " [i]n a blaze of glory." (Tr. at 1596.)

When the fire department arrived at his house at 3:45 a.m. the morning of the fire, Weisheit was not home. He failed to respond to numerous calls to his cell phone. OnStar placed him in Boone County, Kentucky. When an OnStar operator placed a call from Lisa to his car, Weisheit refused to speak with Lisa.

Boone County sheriff deputies located Weisheit in traffic, but he fled at speeds exceeding 140 miles per hour. Eventually, spike strips brought Weisheit's car to a stop. Confronted by officers, he pulled out a knife and aggressively jumped around while screaming " come on, f***ing kill me . . . I want to die." (Tr. at 1357-58.) Weisheit then threw the knife at the officers, narrowly missing one. Refusing to submit, Weisheit was tased and fell to the ground, hitting his head. At the time of his capture, he was carrying $4,800 in cash and two rolls of duct tape, and he had clothing and toiletries in his car.

Taken to the hospital, Weisheit was diagnosed with a mild brain contusion or concussion. While at the hospital, Vanderburgh County detectives read Weisheit his Miranda rights before conducting a nineteen-minute interview. During the interview, Weisheit answered some questions but, when asked about the fire or the children, pretended to fall asleep.

Based on the totality of the circumstances, State Fire Marshal Clayton Kinder determined that the fire had been intentionally set.

The State subsequently charged Weisheit with two counts of murder[1] and with class A felony arson resulting in serious bodily injury.[2] Alleging as aggravating circumstances that: (1) Weisheit committed multiple murders; and (2) his victims were less than twelve years old, the State sought the death penalty pursuant to Indiana Code § § 35-50-2-9(b)(8) and 35-50-2-9(b)(12) (2008).

At trial, Weisheit testified and admitted to binding Caleb with duct tape and shoving

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a washcloth into his mouth because he was angry with the boy--who was repeatedly apologizing--for refusing to go to bed. According to Weisheit, he placed Caleb on his bed, thought to himself that " I got to get out of here," and packed his clothes--as well as some of Lisa's belongings, such as her jewelry--in order to " get away . . . from everything for a day or so." (Tr. at 2028.) He testified that he left his house around 1 a.m. He also admitted to bringing flares into the house at an earlier time.

On June 18, 2013, a jury found Weisheit guilty of murdering Alyssa and Caleb and of class A felony arson resulting in serious bodily injury. Finding that, under Indiana Code § 35-50-2-9(l), the State had proven the alleged aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, and that these aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigating circumstances, the jury recommended the death penalty. The trial court sentenced Weisheit accordingly.

Pursuant to Indiana Appellate Rule 4(A)(1)(a), this Court has mandatory and exclusive jurisdiction over Weisheit's appeal of his convictions and death sentence. Additional facts will be provided as necessary.[3]

Issues Raised

First, Weisheit claims that the trial court committed reversible error in excluding, during the penalty phase, a prison administration expert's testimony that he could safely be incarcerated for the rest of his natural life. Second, Weisheit contends that there is insufficient evidence to sustain his conviction for arson resulting in serious bodily injury. Third, Weisheit argues that the trial court committed reversible error in refusing to excuse twelve jurors for cause. Fourth, Weisheit insists that he was entitled to a mistrial after a juror placed a note from his wife in the jury room stating " Thank you for your service for the family of Alyssa [and] Caleb Lynch. I will pray for you all to have strength and wisdom to deal with the days ahead. God bless!" (Court's Ex. 1.)

Fifth, Weisheit asserts that there is insufficient evidence to support his convictions for murder. Sixth, Weisheit maintains that the statements he gave to police while hospitalized for a mild brain contusion were made involuntarily and therefore should have been suppressed. Seventh, Weisheit asks this Court to remand his case to the trial court for a new sentence. Eighth and finally, Weisheit urges that his death sentence be vacated because neither the jury nor the trial court properly considered and weighed his offered mitigating circumstances. We will take each in turn.

Standard of Review

Following the entry of judgment, before a death sentence can be imposed, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt at least one aggravating circumstance listed in subsection (b) of the death penalty statute. Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(a); Krempetz v. State, 872 N.E.2d 605, 613 (Ind. 2007). In making its sentencing determination, the trial court must find not only that the State has proven the existence of an alleged aggravator beyond a reasonable doubt, but also that any mitigating circumstances

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that exist are outweighed by the aggravating circumstance or circumstances. Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(l); Krempetz, 872 N.E.2d at 613.

We have mandatory and exclusive jurisdiction over a criminal appeal where the defendant is sentenced to death. Ind. Appellate Rule 4(A)(1)(a) . However, our standard rules of appellate review apply in death penalty cases. Matheney v. State, 583 N.E.2d 1202, 1208 (Ind. 1992) (citing Games v. State, 535 N.E.2d 530, 537 (Ind. 1989)).

I. The Trial Court Did Not Err in Excluding a Prison Administration Expert's Testimony that Weisheit Could be Safely Incarcerated in Prison

As mitigation evidence against the death penalty, Weisheit sought to present testimony from James Aiken, an expert in prison administration and inmate classification, that he could " adequately be housed, managed, and supervised, and secured in a high security setting for the remainder of his life without causing undue risk of harm to staff, inmates or the general public," or alternatively incarcerated for a term of years. (Tr. at 2373, 2379.) In preparation for his testimony, Aiken reviewed Weisheit's records from the Vanderburgh County Confinement Center, where Weisheit was being housed, interviewed Weisheit the previous night, and drew upon his forty years of experience working in corrections.

Objecting to the potential admission of Aiken's testimony, the State argued that, based on Aiken's limited interaction with Weisheit, Weisheit had not laid the proper foundation for Aiken to testify as to his prediction of Weisheit's future behavior. Additionally, the State pointed out that Aiken could not support his proposed testimony with scientific studies or a course of study.

Agreeing with the State that Aiken's proposed testimony was too speculative to be admissible, the trial court prohibited Aiken from testifying to his opinions regarding Weisheit's potential future classification in the Indiana Department of Correction. However, the trial court did permit Aiken to testify as to Indiana's classification system in general and his knowledge about Weisheit's housing and classification up to the time of the penalty phase. After making an offer of proof, Weisheit decided that there was no purpose to having Aiken testify as to the classification system and declined to call Aiken as a witness.

Whether the trial court erred in excluding expert testimony about Weisheit's future ability to adjust to prison life in a capital case is an issue of first impression before this Court. Indeed, our precedent addresses the admissibility of evidence of a defendant's past adjustment to prison life--not expert testimony of future predicted adjustment. We review the trial court's decision to exclude such evidence for an abuse of discretion. Hardiman v. State, 726 N.E.2d 1201, 1203 (Ind. 2000).

Wilkes v. State, 917 N.E.2d 675 Skipper v. South ...

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