Indiana man free after misconduct leads to his murder conviction being thrown out
A Madison County man who had his conviction thrown out earlier this year due to misconduct will not be tried a second time.
Trondo Humphrey, 38, got out of jail earlier this month after being locked up for 21 years. Prosecutors originally planned to retry him after his original 60-year prison sentence was thrown out, but changed their mind days before his retrial was scheduled to begin. Humphrey, who was 16 when the crime occurred, is now a free man for the first time in his adult life.
Serious questions arose about the credibility of a key witness in the case, Roosevelt Brooks, who has admitted to lying to police. There was also questions about the competence of Humphrey’s original 1996 trial attorney.
Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings, who was also the elected prosecutor during the original 1996 trial, said the credibility of Brooks made it impossible to retry Humphrey. But Cummings argued for years that Humphrey’s original trial went fine and also said the victim and his family had a right to a second trial.
Humphrey was convicted of the 1995 murder of Benjamin Laughlin. Laughlin and another man were driving around Anderson, Indiana in a truck looking to buy crack cocaine when they pulled into an alley and saw three men they believed to be drug dealers. One of those men got into the truck and pulled a gun on them. Laughlin attempted to grab the gun and it went off, with the bullet hitting Laughlin in the abdomen and eventually killing him.
Another man, Roosevelt Brooks, told police in an unsworn written statement that Humphrey was the man who got into the truck and ended up shooting Laughlin. But when Brooks was called to testify at trial he said he wasn’t with Humphrey the night of the shooting and only made that statement because of police pressure.
Still, Brooks’ original statement was admitted into evidence during Humphrey’s trial, and Humphrey’s attorney, Patrick Cunningham, did not object.
“After the unsworn statement had been admitted, defense counsel made repeated references to it throughout the remainder of the trial,” wrote Justice Robert Rucker in authoring the majority opinion throwing out the conviction. “ It was defense counsel — not the State — who read aloud in court the portion of Brooks’ unsworn statement that identified Humphrey as the shooter.”
The other man in the truck with Laughlin was unable to identify the man who got into the truck or the other two men in the alley.
Humphrey filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that Cunningham had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the admission of Brooks’ statement on hearsay grounds.
The Supreme Court agreed that Cunningham should have objected to the statement, and also said Cunningham should have objected to juror instructions where the trial judge told the jury they should consider Brooks’ unsworn written statement as evidence.
“The trial court explicitly asked trial counsel if he had any objection to the proposed, standard instruction and counsel answered in the negative,” Rucker wrote.
And Rucker also said there was reason to believe that the verdict might have been different if Cunningham had done his job effectively.
An editorial in The Herald Bulletin says the State of Indiana failed Humphrey.
“Humphrey’s case isn’t an isolated incident,” the editorial said. “The state owes it to Humphrey and each of its citizens to address the failures of the criminal justice system and do all it can to ensure this never happens again.”