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McDowell v. State

Court of Appeals of Indiana

May 30, 2018

Racxon Cruze McDowell, Appellant-Petitioner,
State of Indiana, Appellee-Respondent.

          Appeal from the Vanderburgh Superior Court The Honorable Robert J. Pigman, Judge, Trial Court Cause No. No. 82D03-1412-PC-6080

          Attorneys for Appellant Stephen T. Owens, Public Defender of Indiana, William D. Polansky Deputy Public Defender Indianapolis, Indiana.

          Attorneys for Appellee Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana George P. Sherman Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana.

          MATHIAS, JUDGE.

         [¶1] Racxon Cruze McDowell ("McDowell") was convicted of murder in 2012. Following his unsuccessful direct appeal, McDowell filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which the Vanderburgh Superior Court denied. McDowell appeals and presents three issues, which we consolidate and restate as whether McDowell was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel.

         [¶2] We affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶3] The facts surrounding McDowell's convictions are as follows.[1] On the morning of June 3, 2012, McDowell called 911 to report that his girlfriend, Rachel Lomax ("Rachel") was unresponsive. McDowell told the responding paramedic, Dylan Woods ("Woods"), that he and Rachel had been out drinking the night before and that when they came home from the bar, she took six sleeping pills and went to bed. He claimed that when he woke up, he found Rachel sitting naked on the toilet and not breathing. Woods initially suspected, based on McDowell's story, that Rachel might have overdosed. While attending to Rachel, however, he noticed numerous injuries on her body. When confronted with these injuries, McDowell claimed that Rachel had gotten into a fight at the bar the night before. Woods and a responding firefighter attempted to perform CPR on Rachel. But the efforts to resuscitate Rachel were unsuccessful, and she was pronounced dead at the scene.

         [¶4] Woods summoned the Evansville Police Department ("EPD") to the scene, who subsequently sought a search warrant. Both the police and Woods noted that McDowell had scratches on his face. After obtaining the search warrant, the police examined the scene and noted a shoe print on Rachel's shirt that was consistent with McDowell's shoe. Some of Rachel's clothing had also been ripped or damaged. Rachel's blood was on the door of the bathroom and her right hand. Testing of Rachel's fingernails revealed the presence of McDowell's skin under her fingernails.

         [¶5] McDowell was taken to jail by EPD Officer Raymond Holden ("Holden"). McDowell asked Holden if he remembered him from a prior traffic stop. When Holden stated that he did not remember him, McDowell responded, "Well, you remember Rachel, don't you?" Trial Tr. p. 607. When Holden asked who Rachel was, McDowell stated, "You know Rachel, the girl I f**kin' killed?" Id. When being booked into jail, McDowell told the booking officer, "I loved the bitch. I killed her. I loved the bitch. I killed her." Id. at 617.

         [¶6] McDowell was subsequently interviewed by police and denied any involvement in Rachel's death. Instead, he claimed that she had been assaulted by a man and woman at the riverfront. The police confronted McDowell about inaccuracies in his story, and McDowell admitted his story was untrue. McDowell later wrote a letter to Rachel's parents, admitting that he attacked her after she had punched and kicked him.

         [¶7] An autopsy revealed the extent of Rachel's injuries, which were horrifying. She suffered black eyes and a bruise on her chin. She also had a large contusion on the right side of her face that was the result of a "serious injury" that itself would have caused unconsciousness and even death from internal bleeding. Trial Tr. pp. 189-90. The injury causing the contusion was so severe that it also caused multiple, potentially-fatal skull fractures and a subdural hematoma. The subdural hematoma caused Rachel's brain to swell and was also a potentially fatal injury. Id. at 199, 217. These injuries were caused by blunt force trauma. Rachel also sustained bruises to her forehead, left temple, behind the left ear, and on her chin and neck. The autopsy also revealed an injury to the right temporalis muscle, [2] which was so severe that it tore the muscle loose from the skull. Rachel also had several bruises on the top of her scalp and multiple bruises on her extremities.

         [¶8] Rachel also sustained bruises to her small and large intestines and a hematoma to one of her kidneys. In addition, Rachel's breastbone was fractured as a result of a severe blow to the chest. Another blow caused multiple fractured ribs on her left side. These ribs were "displaced" fractures, where the bone was so damaged that it came apart. Trial Tr. p. 203. Such fractures require a significant amount of force. The chest injuries also caused damage to her lungs, which would have caused bleeding in the left lung. There was also a large laceration to Rachel's liver, such that the organ was almost severed in two. This injury caused massive, fatal bleeding and was identified as the main cause of death.

         [¶9] On June 6, 2012, the State charged McDowell with murder, Class D felony obstruction of justice, and Class A misdemeanor false informing. A three-day jury trial commenced on August 26, 2013. At trial, the State dismissed the lesser two counts and proceeded only on the murder charge. During defense counsel's opening statement, he admitted that McDowell and Rachel had gotten into a physical fight but argued that the jury should find McDowell guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

         [¶10] McDowell testified on his own behalf and claimed that he and Rachel had gotten into a fight about missing pills. According to him, Rachel pushed him and knocked him down, and he pushed her and knocked her down. He then locked himself in the bathroom, but Rachel began to pound on the door. When he opened the door, he punched Rachel in the chin; when she retaliated by spitting in his face, he slammed her to the ground and pressed his knee into her stomach to restrain her, which he believed in hindsight to be what caused the fatal injury to her liver. He maintained that he did not intend to kill Rachel.

         [¶11] McDowell's trial counsel requested that the jury be instructed on involuntary manslaughter, but the trial court rejected the instruction. The trial court did, however, instruct the jury regarding voluntary manslaughter. In closing arguments to the jury, McDowell's trial counsel argued that there was insufficient evidence to show that McDowell intended to kill Rachel. Focusing on the medical examiner's conclusion that the cause of death was the laceration to the liver and loss of blood, McDowell's counsel argued:

To convict [McDowell] of murder, you have to say that [he] knew that by pressing down on her liver with his body weight with his knee, and by hitting her, that he was going to kill her, that he knew he was going to split that liver. That's what you got to get to. That's how you got to get to murder from here. And that's a big jump.

Trial Tr. p. 756. The jury found McDowell guilty as charged, and the trial court subsequently sentenced McDowell to sixty-five years of incarceration.

         [¶12] On direct appeal, McDowell presented three issues: (1) whether the trial court committed fundamental error by admitting into evidence certain autopsy photographs and the videotape of the police interview with McDowell in which he stated that he had previously battered his ex-wife; (2) whether the trial court committed fundamental error when it admitted McDowell's testimony regarding his legal status at the time of the crime and the past incident of domestic violence between him and his ex-wife; and (3) whether the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted a picture of a tattoo on McDowell's back that referenced gang affiliation. McDowell v. State, 82A01-1311-CR-492, 2014 WL 3408336, slip op. at 1 (Ind.Ct.App. July 11, 2014). We rejected McDowell's appellate claims and affirmed his conviction. Id. at 3.

         [¶13] On December 22, 2014, McDowell filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief. On December 7, 2016, McDowell, now represented by counsel from the Indiana Public Defender's Office, filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief. The post-conviction court held an evidentiary hearing on the petition on February 17, 2017, and entered findings of fact and conclusions of law on September 29, 2017, denying McDowell's petition. McDowell now appeals.

         Post-Conviction Standard of Review

         [¶14] Our standard of review of claims that a post-conviction court erred in denying relief is well settled:

Post-conviction proceedings are not "super appeals" through which convicted persons can raise issues they failed to raise at trial or on direct appeal. Rather, post-conviction proceedings afford petitioners a limited opportunity to raise issues that were unavailable or unknown at trial and on direct appeal. A postconviction petitioner bears the burden of establishing grounds for relief by a preponderance of the evidence. On appeal from the denial of post-conviction relief, the petitioner stands in the position of one appealing from a negative judgment. To prevail on appeal from the denial of post-conviction relief, the petitioner must show that the evidence as a whole leads unerringly and unmistakably to a conclusion opposite that reached by the postconviction court.
Where, as here, the post-conviction court makes findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Indiana Post-Conviction Rule 1(6), we cannot affirm the judgment on any legal basis, but rather, must determine if the court's findings are sufficient to support its judgment. Although we do not defer to the post-conviction court's legal conclusions, we review the postconviction court's factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard. Accordingly, we will not reweigh the evidence or judge the credibility of witnesses, and we will consider only the probative evidence and reasonable inferences flowing therefrom that support the post-conviction court's decision.

Manzano v. State, 12 N.E.3d 321, 325 (Ind.Ct.App. 2014) (citations omitted) trans. denied.

         Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel

         [¶15] In Timberlake v. State, our supreme court summarized the law regarding claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel as follows:

A defendant claiming a violation of the right to effective assistance of counsel must establish the two components set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires a showing that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and that the errors were so serious that they resulted in a denial of the right to counsel guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. To establish prejudice, a defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.
Counsel is afforded considerable discretion in choosing strategy and tactics, and we will accord those decisions deference. A strong presumption arises that counsel rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment. The Strickland Court recognized that even the finest, most experienced criminal defense attorneys may not agree on the ideal strategy or the most effective way to represent a client. Isolated mistakes, poor strategy, inexperience, and instances of bad judgment do not necessarily render representation ineffective. The two prongs of the Strickland test are separate and ...

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