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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ind. Courts - Court hears oral arguments in plea case of first impression

The oral arguments before the Supreme Court Tuesday in the case of Shawn E. Norris v. State (see ILB background) are the subject of a story today by Niki Kelly in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Some quotes:

Four years after pleading guilty to molesting a young girl, Shawn Norris wants to use newly discovered evidence to exonerate him of the crime.

But first the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court have to give him that option.

The state’s high court heard oral arguments about the Kosciusko County case Tuesday.

It is one of first impression, which means there are no previous legal rulings on the issue in Indiana.

Defendants have long had the right to use the post-conviction relief process to introduce newly discovered evidence and argue their guilt. But the avenue has been used only by those convicted at trial – not those who voluntarily admit their guilt. * * *

Nancy McCaslin, attorney for Norris said he is intellectually challenged – or mildly mentally retarded, according to court records – and he believed that he had molested the girl based on what the girl’s mother told him.

But in 2006, the girl’s mother signed an affidavit recanting the allegations, saying they are “wholly and completely false.”

She said she initiated the case against Norris to regain custody of her children.

“At the time I initiated these false claims I was fully aware that Shawn Norris was mentally retarded and I knew I could force him to say whatever I told him,” the affidavit said. * * *

Several of the justices seemed concerned about the breadth of cases this could open up for review – with the simple recantation of one witness or co-defendant.

“It’s our obligation to look beyond this case,” Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard said. “You are asking us to say everybody who can roust up an affidavit or some other piece of data that might have been admitted had there been a trial may be entitled to set aside the plea in which the person said, ‘I did it.’ ”

And Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. noted that Norris could appeal his plea as not being “knowing, voluntary and intelligent” due to his diminished mental capacity without creating new case law.

Arthur Thaddeus Perry, a deputy attorney general fighting to maintain the conviction, encouraged the justices to dismiss the case by finding the woman’s affidavit doesn’t meet a nine-point test to count as newly discovered evidence.

That would leave open the ultimate question of whether someone who pleads guilty has the right to later challenge that conviction with newly discovered evidence.

“I thought it was always a judicial principle that courts don’t decide questions they don’t have to,” Perry said.

Listen to the oral argument here.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 1, 2008 08:04 AM
Posted to Upcoming Oral Arguments