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Cornell v. State

Court of Appeals of Indiana

January 9, 2020

Paris Cornell, Appellant-Defendant,
State of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff

          Appeal from the Vanderburgh Circuit Court The Honorable Kelli E. Fink, Magistrate Trial Court Cause No. 82C01-1808-MR-5903

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Matthew J. McGovern Anderson, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Caroline G. Templeton Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana

          BAKER, JUDGE.

         [¶1] Paris Cornell appeals his convictions and sentence for Felony Murder[1] and Level 3 Felony Conspiracy to Commit Armed Robbery.[2] Cornell was fifteen years old at the time of the offenses, but was tried and convicted as an adult. On appeal, Cornell argues the following: (1) he was denied equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment when the trial court allowed the State to strike one of only two Black jurors; (2) the trial court erroneously admitted inadmissible hearsay evidence; (3) the erroneous admission of hearsay evidence violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment; and (4) his sentence was inappropriate in light of the nature of the offenses and his character. Finding no error and that the sentence was not inappropriate, we affirm.


         [¶2]At around 4:00 AM on July 18, 2018, brothers Joan and Kevin Colon went to Sam's Food Market in Evansville. When they arrived, Joan went inside to buy cigarettes and gas and Kevin remained outside; Kevin had joined his brother on the trip to Sam's hoping to meet someone to buy marijuana.

         [¶3] A few minutes before Joan and Kevin arrived at Sam's, Denyae Burris, Jacorion Madison, Jahkei Mitchell, and Cornell, four friends and teenagers, also went to Sam's. The four went inside to buy some food and then exited the store. As they exited, Keyovie Sargent (Jacorion's cousin, known as "Biggie") drove up to the store in a red car with Kyavion Brown, another teenager, in the passenger seat. Kevin, who was intoxicated at the time, approached Biggie's car with a twenty-dollar bill, hoping to buy some marijuana from Biggie and Kyavion. Meanwhile, Cornell and Jahkei walked around the corner of the building, out of view of any surveillance cameras, and then walked back around to Biggie's car.[3] Cornell then spoke briefly with Biggie before going back around the side of the building again with Jahkei, this time bringing Kevin along with them.

         [¶4] Soon after Cornell, Jahkei, and Kevin went together to the side of Sam's, Kyavion, still sitting in Biggie's passenger seat, heard someone say "b*tch," tr. vol. III p. 4; immediately afterward, both Jacorion and Kyavion heard a gunshot. After hearing the gunshot, Jacorion and Denyae got into Biggie's car, and the group drove away.

         [¶5] When Joan eventually exited the store, he looked around for Kevin but could not find him anywhere. Thinking Kevin may have started walking back home, Joan got in his car and left Sam's, but when he didn't see Kevin anywhere along the route, he drove back to Sam's. He eventually found Kevin collapsed on the ground, unresponsive, on the side of the building. Joan called his other brother, who told him to call 911. The clerk working at Sam's ended up calling 911. When police and EMTs arrived, the EMTs determined that Kevin had been shot in the upper chest. He was then taken to the hospital around 4:29 AM, and he was pronounced dead at 4:41 AM. The autopsy conducted later that day confirmed that death was a result of a gunshot wound to the heart and that death would have occurred within a few seconds to a few minutes of the shot being fired.

         [¶6] Jacorion testified that he had seen Jahkei with a black handgun earlier that day at Denyae's house, and that he saw Jahkei with the gun again after the incident when he, Denyae, Jahkei, and Cornell returned to Denyae's house. At some point afterward, Jahkei went to his cousin's mother's house, after which his cousin "found" a gun at the house and disposed of it in the Ohio River. Tr. Vol. II p. 191. He claimed he disposed of the weapon because he felt "it was disrespectful" to have the gun at this mother's house. Id. at 191, 193.

         [¶7] Law enforcement recovered a .40-caliber Geco shell case from the Sam's parking lot. During a search of Cornell's bedroom, police recovered an unfired round of .40-caliber Smith and Wesson ammunition, a bullet box, a taser, one banana-style .22-caliber magazine, a .22-caliber bullet, and a .380-caliber bullet, as well as clothing and sandals that matched what Cornell wore the morning of the shooting. Police also located a fake plastic handgun in a kitchen cabinet in Cornell's home.

         [¶8] On August 29, 2018, the juvenile court waived jurisdiction of Cornell on the basis that he committed the alleged offense of murder when he was a child between twelve and sixteen years of age.[4] The next day, the State charged Cornell as an adult with two counts of felony murder, one count of Level 3 felony attempted armed robbery, and one count of Level 3 felony conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The State also alleged that Cornell committed the charged offenses while using a firearm, thus making him eligible for the firearm sentencing enhancement.[5]

         [¶9] A jury trial was held from March 18, 2019, to March 20, 2019. During voir dire, three prospective jurors were struck peremptorily. The first, Ms. S., testified that when her son was nineteen, he had been convicted of possession of paraphernalia and criminal mischief, and that her father had been robbed twice when she was a teenager. She stated that she "may not have an open mind about this case" and that she "may not be" a fair juror. Tr. Vol. II p. 26. The second struck juror, Ms. H., testified that she had been prosecuted in 2006 for visiting a common nuisance but was treated fairly, and that she would be fair and impartial in this case.

         [¶10] The third prospective juror that the State struck, Mr. M., testified that he pleaded guilty in 2017 to charges related to the battering of his son, who was seventeen years old at the time, after his son told him that his girlfriend was pregnant. Mr. M. agreed that it was something he "really regret[s]," but that he nonetheless felt the process was fair and testified that he would not hold anything against the State as a result of that prosecution. Mr. M. was one of two Black people on the jury panel. Cornell raised a Batson[6] objection at the time the State exercised the peremptory challenge against Mr. M. and the trial court overruled it, finding that there was no discrimination. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Cornell guilty as charged on all counts and found that the firearm enhancement applied.

         [¶11] At a sentencing hearing on April 15, 2019, the trial court merged the two murder convictions and merged the attempted robbery count with the conspiracy count, entering judgment of conviction only on the murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery verdicts. The trial court sentenced Cornell to fifty-two years for murder and seven years for conspiracy to commit armed robbery, to be served concurrently. Due to the firearm sentencing enhancement, the trial court enhanced the murder sentence by ten years, for an aggregate term of sixty-two years, to be served in the Department of Correction. Cornell now appeals.

         Discussion and Decision

         I. Batson

         [¶12] Cornell first argues that the trial court erred by allowing the State to peremptorily strike one of only two Black people from the jury panel, thereby violating Cornell's equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

         [¶13] In Batson v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court held that a State's exercise of a peremptory challenge is subject to the Equal Protection Clause, which "forbids the prosecutor to challenge potential jurors solely on account of their race or on the assumption that black jurors as a group will be unable impartially to consider the State's case against a black defendant." 476 U.S. 79, 89 (1986). "Purposeful racial discrimination in selection of the venire violates a defendant's rights to equal protection because it denies him the protection that a trial by jury is intended to secure." Id. at 86.

         [¶14] Our Supreme Court has explained the required burden-shifting analysis for a Batson challenge as follows:

The Batson Court developed a three-step test to determine whether a peremptory challenge has been used improperly to disqualify a potential juror on the basis of race. First, the party contesting the peremptory challenge must make a prima facie showing of discrimination on the basis of race. Second, after the contesting party makes a prima facie showing of discrimination, the burden shifts to the party exercising its peremptory challenge to present a race-neutral explanation for using the challenge. Third, if a race-neutral explanation is proffered, the trial court must then decide whether the challenger has carried its burden of proving purposeful discrimination.

Jeter v. State, 888 N.E.2d 1257, 1263 (Ind. 2008) (internal citations omitted). The decision of the trial court regarding whether a peremptory challenge is discriminatory is accorded great deference on appeal and will be set aside only if it is clearly erroneous. Forrest v. State, 757 N.E.2d 1003, 1004 (Ind. 2001).

         [¶15] During voir dire, the State used one of its peremptory challenges to strike Mr. M., one of only two Black people, from the panel of potential jurors. Cornell made a Batson challenge, stating that "the record would show that Mr. [M.] is only one of two African American's [sic] on this whole panel. He's the only one in this configuration, and [Cornell] is African American as well." Tr. Vol. II p. 60. In response, the State offered the following reason for striking Mr. M.:

THE STATE: . . . [H]is questionnaire outlines that he was convicted of a crime with his 19-year-old son as the victim, and I discussed that with him, and essentially his, he plead guilty to all of that and the State's reason for striking him is the similarities between [Cornell's] age and his son and the sympathy that people make mistakes and the State would feel that based on that episode and the circumstances where Mr. McIntosh says that his son got someone pregnant and made a mistake, the State believes that the age of [Cornell] and our case would strike too close at home to his son's and the regret for him having battered his son. So, that is the reason why the State is striking him.

Id. at 60-61. The trial court overruled Cornell's Batson challenge, reasoning that "we have two African Americans on the jury panel," and that therefore "[w]e have at least someone else who might be eligible, so I am not going to find evidence of discrimination." Id. at 61. The trial court concluded that the State's reason for striking the juror was race neutral.

         [¶16] Under the first step of the Batson analysis, Cornell argues that the striking of one of only two Black people on the jury panel shows prima facie discrimination. "A prima facie showing requires the defendant to show that peremptory challenges were used to remove members of a cognizable racial group from the jury pool and that the facts and circumstances raise an inference that the removal was because of race." Hardister v. State, 849 N.E.2d 563, 576 (Ind. 2006). The removal of the only Black juror from a panel is sufficient to establish prima facie discrimination under Batson. Cartwright v. State, 962 N.E.2d 1217, 1222 (Ind. 2012). On the other hand, "[t]he removal of some African American jurors by the use of peremptory challenges does not, by itself, raise an inference of racial discrimination." Highler v. State, 854 N.E.2d 823, 827 (Ind. 2006).

         [¶17] Cornell acknowledges that the removal of some, but not all, Black jurors via peremptory challenges does not create a prima facie case of discrimination. Instead, he centers his argument on the following language from Batson:

We have observed that under some circumstances proof of discriminatory impact "may for all practical purposes demonstrate unconstitutionality because in various circumstances the discrimination is very difficult to explain on nonracial grounds." For example, "total or seriously disproportionate exclusion of [Black people] from jury venires," [] "is itself such an 'unequal application of the law . . . as to show intentional discrimination.'"

Batson, 476 U.S. at 93 (emphasis added) (quoting Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 241 (1976) (internal quotations omitted)) (internal citations omitted). Cornell contends that the removal of one of two Black jurors from the jury panel constitutes the type of "disproportionate" exclusion contemplated by Batson and thus makes for a prima facie case of discrimination.

         [¶18] We disagree. In Hardister v. State, our Supreme Court found no prima facie discrimination where the State exercised five of six peremptory challenges to strike potential Black jurors from the panel, which left only two remaining Black jurors, one of whom was struck by the defense. 849 N.E.2d at 576. If striking six of seven total Black jurors from the panel was not sufficient to create a prima facie case of discrimination, then we would be hard pressed to find prima facie discrimination in Cornell's case.

         [¶19] Even if Cornell had successfully showed prima facie discrimination, we nonetheless find that the explanation offered by the State for striking Mr. M. was race neutral, and that the trial court was within its discretion in concluding that Cornell had not carried the burden of showing purposeful discrimination by the State. "If the explanation, on its face, is based on something other than race, the explanation will be deemed race-neutral." Forrest, 757 N.E.2d at 1004. The State's proffered explanation for striking Mr. M. was based on Mr. M.'s previous involvement with the criminal justice system, and for the similarity in age between his own son and Cornell. Taken at face value, this is a sufficiently race-neutral explanation for striking Mr. M.

         [¶20] As for the third and final step of the Batson analysis, our inquiry is as follows:

Although the ultimate burden of persuasion regarding purposeful discrimination rests with the party opposing the strike, "This final step involves evaluating the persuasiveness of the justification proffered by the [proponent of the strike]. . . ." Rice v. Collins, 546 U.S. 333, 338, 126 S.Ct. 969, 163 L.Ed.2d 824 (2006). This point was amplified in Hernandez [v. New York, 500 U.S. 352 (1991)]. "In the typical peremptory challenge inquiry, the decisive question will be whether counsel's race-neutral explanation for a peremptory challenge should be believed. There will seldom be much evidence bearing on that issue, and the best evidence often will be the demeanor of the attorney who exercises the challenge. As with the state of mind of a juror, evaluation of the [proponent's] state of mind based on demeanor and credibility lies peculiarly within a trial judge's province."

Jeter, 888 N.E.2d at 1264-65 (some internal citations and quotations omitted).

         [¶21] We find no evidence undermining the demeanor and credibility of the State when it offered its race-neutral explanation for striking Mr. M. As such, the trial court did not err in overruling Cornell's Batson challenge and there was no ...

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