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Gibson v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

April 12, 2016


          Appeal from the Floyd Superior Court 1, No. 22D01-1205-MR-1145. The Honorable Susan L. Orth, Judge.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT; Steven E. Ripstra, Ripstra Law Office, Jasper, Indiana; Laura Paul, Indianapolis, Indiana.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana; Andrew A. Kobe, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

         Rush, Chief Justice. Dickson, Rucker, David, and Massa, JJ., concur.


         On Direct Appeal

         Rush, Chief Justice.

         William Clyde Gibson III pleaded guilty to murdering Stephanie Kirk, and the trial court sentenced him to death. Gibson directly appeals his sentence to this Court, raising four issues: (1) whether there was insufficient evidence to prove two aggravators--that he murdered Kirk while committing two forms of criminal deviate conduct--beyond a reasonable doubt; (2) whether allowing the State to amend the charging information was fundamental error; (3) whether the court manifestly abused its discretion in weighing mitigators and aggravators; and (4) whether his death sentence is inappropriate in light of his character and the nature of the offense. We affirm the trial court in all respects.

         Facts and Procedural History

         William Clyde Gibson met Stephanie Kirk on March 24, 2012. The next day, he sexually assaulted, strangled, and ultimately killed her. In three written confessions and multiple police interviews, Gibson detailed the day's events and the attack in his own words: He met Kirk at a bar, got her phone number, and later called her to arrange a date the next day. When Gibson arrived at Shooter's Saloon to meet Kirk the following afternoon, he saw her behind the building and approached her. The two finished Kirk's marijuana and then left to go to another bar. He and Kirk spent the rest of the day driving around " just drinking[,] smoking pot[,] and doing pain pills," [1] and eventually went to his house where they " had sex in the living room" and then " continued to drink[,] smoke more pot and do more pain pills." State's Ex. 3, Exs. Vol. I at 41.

         Gibson then described in detail how the attack unfolded: He " took some of [Kirk's] pot and pain pills," and " she got mad and we started fighting about it." Id. The argument escalated into an attack when he " put [his] hands in front of her throat" and began strangling her. State's Ex. 2, Exs. Vol. I at 24. Upon quickly subduing Kirk, Gibson put his " whole hand in [her vagina] as far in as [he] could get it" and " played around inside of [her] with [his] hand until [he] got tired of that." State's Ex. 7, Exs. Vol. I at 103. He then described what happened next: " I got [Kirk] naked" and " pulled [her] ass up against my chest and bent [her] double" and began " bitting [sic] and chewing and pulling on" her labia " with my teeth." Id. At some point during this attack, Kirk died.

         Gibson told police he " panicked, completely panicked" after the murder, State's Ex. 2, Exs. Vol. I at 29, and said, " I just went out in the van, drove around drinking. I just had to get away. But I was driving around drinking thinking--trying to figure out a place to put her," id. at 27. When Gibson returned home in the early morning, he hid Kirk's nearly naked body in his garage and dug a shallow hole in his backyard by the back deck--telling his neighbor " he was replacing a rotten deck post." Tr. 1255.

         Then later, under cover of darkness, he dragged Kirk's still nearly naked body through the house, across the deck to her shallow grave. He folded her backwards and buried her. Gibson watered the grave and scattered the excess dirt under a nearby tree and around the house before concealing the grave with leaves. Kirk's body lay there undisturbed until police exhumed it a month later.

         Meanwhile, Gibson began having sexual thoughts about his next victim, his late mother's dear seventy-five-year-old friend Christine Whitis. And three weeks after murdering Kirk, Gibson attacked Whitis in the very same living room--luring her to the house under the guise of needing a friend to talk to, then attacking her when she rebuffed his sexual advances. As he did with Kirk, he stripped off Whitis's clothes, sexually assaulted her by " biting and violently plunging his fist into her vagina," strangled her to death, and manipulated her body so forcefully that he broke her back. Gibson v. State, 43 N.E.3d 231, 234 (Ind. 2015). And, finally, as with Kirk, he hid Whitis's body in his garage. Id. However, before Gibson could dispose of Whitis's body, his sisters discovered it and called the police.[2]

         While in jail on the Whitis murder, Gibson approached Sergeant Steve Bush and Detective Carrie Bush with information about a missing person--Stephanie Kirk. He told them he remembered seeing " some kind of sign . . . [with] a little missing girl on it" in Shooter's Saloon before being arrested. Defendant's Ex. A, Exs. Vol. II at 268. Without prompting, he named the woman as " Stephanie." Id. at 269. Initially, he said it was " possible" he " might've went out with her" but " wouldn't say that [he] killed her." Id. at 275; see also Tr. 766. The next day, Gibson talked to police again, admitted actually spending time with Kirk, and eventually confessed to killing her. But he claimed he could not remember where he put her body.

         Gibson's manipulative tactics continued throughout the Kirk investigation. Generally, Gibson would request to speak to police about the Kirk murder but would only reveal information bit by bit--withholding information until he received a perk like cigarettes or coffee or biscuits and gravy or time out of general lock-up. Sergeant Bush described Gibson as " a very controlling person, manipulative in the sense of . . . he would send us on goose chases and guide us in a direction that wasn't the truth." Tr. 762. For example, Gibson initially said he dumped Kirk's body in the Ohio River, but then he said he buried her in a wooded area off Mount Tabor Road. Police searched both areas and did not find the body. Only when police informed Gibson that he would be returning to general lock-up and would not receive coffee, did he reveal that he buried Kirk's body in his backyard. When police exhumed Kirk's body from the yard, they found it " folded and contorted in different directions," Tr. 1223, clad only in a black leather vest and torn bra.

         The State charged Gibson with murder, alleged he was a habitual offender, and sought the death penalty based on four aggravating circumstances--specifically, that during the murder, Gibson used force or threat of force to commit or attempt to commit criminal deviate conduct on Kirk (1) with his mouth and (2) with his fingers or fist; (3) that he had committed another murder (namely, of Whitis); and (4) that he was on probation (namely, for D-felony auto theft) when he murdered Kirk.

         On the second day of jury selection, Gibson agreed to plead guilty to murder in exchange for the State dropping the habitual offender allegation. Gibson also waived jury trial for the penalty phase, agreeing the court alone would decide whether to sentence him to death, life imprisonment without parole, or a term of years. The State simultaneously amended, without objection, the charging information, changing Aggravator 3 from Gibson having committed the Whitis murder to having been convicted of it.

         Following a four-day sentencing hearing with fourteen witnesses and forty-seven exhibits, the court issued a twenty-six page sentencing order setting out its findings, including that the State proved all four death--penalty aggravators beyond a reasonable doubt. Specifically, it determined that Gibson's acts of deviate conduct with Kirk were compelled by force or threat of force, based on Kirk's ripped bra, bruising on her arm, and Gibson's acknowledgment that he caused her pain; that Gibson had been convicted of the Whitis murder on October 25, 2013; and that Gibson was on probation when he murdered ...

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