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  • Writer's pictureBill Raines

Indiana Supreme Court Hands Down Opinion in Arguments Heard at Mitchell Opera House in October

INDIANAPOLIS - JUNE 30, 2023 - The Indiana Supreme Court issued an opinion in regard to arguments heard from the historic Mitchell Opera House in October 2022.

Photo: The Indiana Supreme Court heard Arguments in Christopher Jerome Harris vs State of Indiana on October 26, 2022, at the historic Mitchell Opera House

The appeal from the Marion Superior Court to transfer the case to the Indiana Court of Appeals was granted in a ruling on June 29, 2023.

Justice Goff, says in this case the Indiana Supreme Court granted the transfer to review a trial courts exclusion of testimony from the jury trial of Christopher Harris habitual offender status.

Harris wished to testify to the circumstances of his most serious crime of conviction, his intent to rehabilitate himself, and his purported innocence of one of his prior, unrelated.


The trial court excluded all this as irrelevant to the issue of whether Harris had accumulated the convictions.

Harris claims his testimony was relevant because in Article 1, Section 19 of the Indiana Constitution gave the jury the right to determine, not only whether he had the convictions, but whether he was ultimately a habitual offender, irrespective of proof of the necessary convictions. Nevertheless, Harris testimony was irrelevant becauseit did not tend to prove or disprove his convictions. He had no constitutional right to present irrelevant evidence. Hence the trial court did not error by excluding the testimony.

In the summer of 2019, Christopher Harris began “hanging out” with a woman who lived at an Indianapolis apartment complex. Tr. Vol. II, p. 224. He became suspicious that she was seeing another man. Harris approached the man as he sat in his car. Harris pointed a handgun at him, accused him of “messing with” the woman, fired two shots, swung the gun at the man’s head, took money and a gold chain from him, and finally ordered the man out of the car before firing several more shots into it. Id. at 107‒14. The man was left bleeding.

The State charged Harris with Level 3 felony robbery while armed with a deadly weapon, Level 4 felony unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon (“unlawful possession”), Level 5 felony battery with a deadly weapon, and Level 6 felony criminal recklessness while armed with a deadly weapon.

A month later, the State filed a separate information seeking a sentence enhancement by alleging Harris to be a habitual offender on account of two prior, unrelated felony convictions.

Before trial, Harris waived trial by jury and the State in turn dismissed the unlawful possession charge. After a bench trial, Harris was found guilty of robbery and battery as charged, but not guilty of criminal recklessness. Before going on to the habitual offender phase, the trial court noted that Harris had never had an initial hearing on the habitual offender charge.

The trial court promptly held such a hearing, explaining to Harris that he was charged with accumulating two unrelated convictions, namely a 2002 Class B felony robbery conviction and a 2013 Class B felony unlawful possession conviction. The trial court advised Harris of his rights but pointed out that he had already waived trial by jury.

The State then raised a concern that Harris might not have made an effective waiver of his right to a jury trial of the habitual offender enhancement. The trial court allowed Harris a choice and he elected a jury trial.

Nine days later, a jury was empaneled to determine whether Harris was a habitual offender. The parties stipulated to the existence of Harris’s two convictions and that they constituted prior, unrelated convictions.

The trial court instructed the jury to accept these admissions. The State presented no further evidence.

The defense called Harris as a witness. He testified as to his age when his present and prior convictions had occurred. Counsel then asked whether there was “anything going on” in Harris’s life at the time of the 2019 robbery.

The State objected that this was irrelevant. The trial court agreed, ruling that the only issue was “whether of the 2019 robbery. The State objected that this was irrelevant. The trial court agreed, ruling that the only issue was “whether these two prior felony convictions make him a habitual offender.

Outside the jury’s presence, Harris then proffered his testimony that, at the time of the robbery, he had recently been diagnosed with PTSD and was taking “some unfamiliar medication”

Counsel argued that this bore on Harris’s “efforts at rehabilitation” and, thus, the jury’s “determination as to his status of a habitual offender Harris also wished to testify to his “plans to further rehabilitate himself.”

Finally, Harris wanted to explain the circumstances of his 2002 robbery conviction.

Harris said he had been nineteen years old and in serious legal trouble for the first time. He “took a plea instead of knowing [he] could have went to trial” and “really wasn’t guilty of the situation.”

The trial court excluded this testimony as a collateral attack on a prior conviction.

The jury returned to the courtroom, the defense rested, and the trial court instructed the jury that it had the right to judge the facts and the law. Going further, the instructions told the jury that “even where you find that the fact of the prerequisite prior felony convictions is uncontroverted, you have the unquestioned right to find that the defendant is not a habitual offender.”

The jury found Harris to be a habitual offender. The trial court sentenced him to an aggregate term of twenty-seven years: twelve years for robbery, three years concurrently for battery, and a habitual offender enhancement of fifteen years to be served consecutively.

On appeal, Harris argued that the trial court’s exclusion of his testimony violated Article 1, Sections 19 and 13 of the Indiana Constitution,5 as well as federal guarantees of the right to testify in his own defense. A unanimous Court of Appeals panel deemed these claims waived for failure to raise them in the trial court.

Waiver notwithstanding, the panel denied Harris’s Article 1, Section 19 claim on the merits.

The panel noted that this Court’s decision in Seay v. State recognized the jury’s “discretion to refuse to find the defendant to be a habitual offender even if the defendant had the requisite prior felony convictions.”

The panel further acknowledged this Court’s later statement that “‘the facts regarding the predicate convictions are relevant to the jury’s decision whether or not to find a defendant to be a habitual offender.’”

The panel held, however, that a 2014 amendment to the habitual offender statute superseded this Court’s precedent.

Under the amended statute, in the panel’s opinion, the jury “only decides whether the defendant has the requisite prior felonies” and, if so, “then habitual- offender status is automatic.”

Hence, “evidence about a defendant’s convictions beyond the fact of conviction is no longer relevant.”

The Indiana Supreme Court granted the transfer, thus vacating the Court of Appeals opinion.

Previous news story:

MITCHELL - OCTOBER 26, 2022 - Students from Mitchell High School, Orleans High School and Shoals High School went to court on Wednesday at the Historic Mitchell Opera House.

Mitchell High School students left to right - Cadden McCormick, Katlyn Hall, Elizabeth Gillespie, Macie Mckneely, Emma Sowder, and Steven Case

The students were invited to see the Judicial Branch of State Government at work with the Indiana Supreme Court in session to hear oral arguments.

Students from Mitchell, Orleans and Shoals High School was able to attend today's Indiana Supreme Court Hearing at the Historic Mitchell Opera House on Wednesday

Mitchell High School student Emma Sowders, called the session by telling the spectators to "Rise, hear ye, hear ye the Indiana Supreme Court is now in session"

Sowders, is a Senior at Mitchell High School said, " I am a little nervous, but I think this will be good," in being part of today's courtroom as Honorary Bailiff.

Sowders, president of the Honor Society, varsity member of the Cross-Country Team, hoping to study phycology, and journalism in college.

" I think it is really cool, to be here today, but I do not have any interest in law. I plan to study wildlife biology," said Elizabeth Gillespie Mitchell High School Student.

Katlyn Hall was selected to represent the student body thought it is wonderful to have a case being heard in Mitchell, Indiana.

Gracie Smith would like to be an attorney at law

" This has been my dream for a very long time to be an attorney of law. I am interested in pursuing a career in criminal law," said Gracie Smith who attended Wednesday's proceedings with her father Scott. " My mother got a degree wanting to be a paralegal, and this sparked my interest because she never got to," Gracie added.

Emily Dewitt Orleans High School sat with the media today as she reported on today's hearing

Following the court hearing, students was able to present questions to the Justices, some asking about the steps to become a member of the highest court in Indiana, education and can they be objective when presiding over a court case.

The students were thrilled not only to be out of school for the day, but many really thrilled to be able to watch a court hearing for the very first time in their lives.

All of Lawrence County Judges were glad to see the students who were able to see their government live at work with a real case.

Lawrence County Zephyr will feature today's hearing in another story.

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