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Compton v. State

Court of Appeals of Indiana

August 24, 2016

Christopher Compton, Appellant-Defendant,
State of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff.

         Appeal from the Vanderburgh Superior Court The Honorable Robert J. Pigman, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 82D02-1403-MR-355

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Scott L. Barnhart Brooke Smith Keffer Barnhart LLP Indianapolis, Indiana.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Gregory F. Zoeller Attorney General of Indiana Larry D. Allen Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana.

          ROBB, JUDGE.

         Case Summary and Issues

         [1] Following a trifurcated jury trial, Christopher Compton was convicted of three counts of felony murder and found to be an habitual offender. Compton appeals, raising two restated issues: (1) whether Compton was deprived of due process when the trial court allowed the media to Tweet live updates of his trial from the courtroom, and (2) whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of Compton's incriminatory statements. Concluding the trial court did not deprive Compton of due process nor did it err in admitting evidence of Compton's statements, we affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [2] In March 2014, Keri Jones, along with her two twin three-year-old daughters, lived in a second-floor apartment in Evansville with several family members and friends. Compton and Jones had been dating on and off for a few years, but Compton did not live in the apartment. On the afternoon of March 17, 2014, Compton visited the apartment. Compton and Jones were both intoxicated and the pair began arguing. After the argument, Compton stated, "Something is going to happen real soon." Transcript at 817. Not long thereafter, Compton and Jones began arguing again, with Compton threatening, "[I]f you don't leave with me, if you and the babies don't leave with me now, I'm going to burn this mother f***er to the ground . . . ." Id. at 964. Jones's uncle, the owner of the apartment, then ordered Compton to leave. A few minutes later, the occupants of the apartment smelled smoke, observed flames coming from the stairwell, and attempted to escape through the apartment's second-floor windows. Jones, one of Jones's daughters, and another occupant were unable to escape and died from smoke inhalation and/or carbon monoxide poisoning.

         [3] Meanwhile, a neighbor, Earl Iverson, observed Compton walking away from the apartment and explained to Compton smoke was coming from the apartment. Compton replied, "I know, I started it." Id. at 570, 618. Iverson immediately walked towards the apartment and told responding police officers Compton admitted to starting the fire. Police officer William Arbaugh identified Compton outside a nearby liquor store. After Compton made incriminating statements, [1] police officers advised Compton of his Miranda rights. Thereafter, Compton explained, "I flicked the Mild, I mean that Black and Mild, (inaudible) went in there, I have no clue. . . . I know I flicked the, I flicked the fire (inaudible) lighting my Black and Mild (inaudible)." Id. at 593. Compton was arrested. During an interview with Detective Keith Whitler, Compton stated the fire started when he flicked a cigar onto some clothing resting on a baby stroller near the stairwell.

         [4] The State charged Compton with three counts of felony murder, fourteen counts of Class A felony arson, and alleged Compton was an habitual offender. Prior to trial, Compton filed a motion to exclude evidence of the inculpatory statements he made to Iverson, police officers, and Detective Whitler, alleging the State failed to establish the corpus delicti of arson. Specifically, Compton argued there was no evidence an arson occurred apart from his inculpatory statements. At a hearing on the motion, fire investigator Jennifer Hunt testified the fire originated at the bottom of the stairwell. She did not find any evidence of accelerants nor was she able to determine the source of the fire. Hunt ruled out all potential natural and accidental causes of the fire, but could not rule out the possibility the fire was intentionally set. Ultimately, Hunt concluded the cause of the fire was undetermined.[2] The State also introduced evidence to establish a timeline of Compton's whereabouts before and during the fire. After taking the matter under advisement, the trial court denied Compton's motion.

         [5] Prior to trial, the trial court instructed the jury not to use the internet to gather information about the case and not to read, watch, or listen to any source discussing the trial, including newspapers, radio, television, and the internet. During trial, but outside the presence of the jury, a reporter approached the trial court and asked whether the media could give live updates of the trial via the social media application, Twitter. Compton objected and the trial court overruled his objection, noting,

I'm going to-I am going to instruct the parties to tell their witnesses to turn off their Twitter accounts until after they've testified. . . . But I am going to allow those of you in the media that are here that are Tweeting, I think that's what it's called, you're going to be permitted to do that so long as it's done in a way that doesn't interfere with the proceedings.

Id. at 553. Also during trial, the State sought to admit evidence of Compton's inculpatory statements. Compton renewed his objection on the basis the State failed to establish the corpus delicti of arson, which the trial court overruled. The jury found Compton guilty but mentally ill on all three counts of felony murder and further found Compton to be an habitual offender.[3] This appeal ensued.

         Discussion ...

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