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Supreme Court resentences Gary man for two murders he committed as a teenager
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Supreme Court resentences Gary man for two murders he committed as a teenager

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The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously refused to hold that enhanced sentencing procedures mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court before a juvenile can be ordered to serve life in prison without parole similarly apply to terms of years sentences for juvenile offenders — no matter the duration.

At the same time, the state's high court ruled 4-1 that a Gary man serving 181 years in prison for two gang-related murders he committed as a teenager should be resentenced to 100 years in prison.

According to court records, Donnell Wilson, now 24, was 16 in 2013 when he shot and killed two brothers, Shaqwone Ham, 19, and Charles Wood, 18, in a gang territory dispute in Gary's Glen Park neighborhood. He also committed an armed robbery shortly before the murders.

Wilson was sentenced to 60 years in prison for Wood's murder, 55 years for killing Ham, 6 years for armed robbery and an additional 60 years under Indiana's criminal gang enhancement statute, records show.

His attorneys urged the Supreme Court to adopt a 3-0 Indiana Court of Appeals decision ordering a new sentencing hearing for Wilson after the appellate court concluded a de facto life sentence for a juvenile offender triggered the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller v. Alabama sentencing standards, including a hearing that takes into account the youth and characteristics of the defendant being sentenced.

The five Hoosier justices, all appointed by Republican governors, rejected that invitation, and vacated the precedent set by the Court of Appeals.

Instead, in an opinion written by Justice Mark Massa, they determined a 181-year prison sentence for a juvenile offender is not "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Rather, a term of years sentence is, by definition, not a life-without-parole sentence, and Miller does not therefore apply, the court said.

"Looking at the information considered by the trial judge, as a whole, the sentencing court sufficiently considered Wilson's background, environment and immaturity before determining that Wilson was sufficiently corrupted and his crimes so serious that he deserved a long term of years sentence," Massa said.

In tandem with that finding, four of the justices agreed Wilson received ineffective assistance from his appellate attorney in the direct appeal of his conviction because the attorney failed to specifically ask the appellate court to reconsider the length of Wilson's prison sentence in light of the nature of the offense and the character of the offender as provided by Appellate Rule 7(B).

The appellate attorney, whom the high court does not identify, admitted in a post-conviction review hearing that he erred by not challenging Wilson's sentence, and said he was not familiar at the time with contemporary Indiana Supreme Court rulings reducing long sentences for juvenile double murderers, according to court records.

The high court concluded those omissions constituted deficient attorney performance, and determined, if the arguments had been raised, Wilson's sentence would have been revised.

As a result, the Supreme Court said after evaluating Wilson's crimes and character it concluded a 100-year prison term — 50 years for each murder and six years for robbery all served concurrently, plus 50 years for the criminal gang enhancement — is more appropriate.

"A 100-year sentence means that after receiving good time credit Wilson will likely be eligible for release in his mid-to-late 60s, meaning that he has reasonable hope for a life outside prison," the court said.

Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, a Crown Point native, dissented from the portion of the Supreme Court ruling finding Wilson's appellate attorney ineffective for not seeking Rule 7(B) review and revising Wilson's prison sentence.

Slaughter said he fears the court's ruling will encourage the filing of more Rule 7(B) claims — which already have little chance of success — and absent clear guidelines for evaluating such claims, the Court of Appeals will be overwhelmed.

"Without a consistent framework for applying 7(B), I would avoid the discretionary review of sentences like Wilson’s altogether," Slaughter said.

Wilson v. State ruling of Indiana Supreme Court

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