Self-defense killings skew Indianapolis murder rate

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- As 2016 comes to a close, homicide detectives and reporters and politicians will cite murder statistics to gauge the relative safety of Indianapolis and its residents, but those numbers will be based on a flawed accounting and reporting system that supplies data which is then subject to criminal justice interpretation.

There have been approximately 161 homicides in Indianapolis this year. The definition of homicide is the intentional taking of a life at the hands of another.
There have been approximately 139 murders this year. The definition of murder is the taking of life with criminal intent. 144 people were murdered in Indianapolis in 2015, a tally many at the time called a record.

Those numbers may vary by the definition of murder, undetermined causes of deaths and charging decisions that may leave many cases, and suspects, in gray areas.

“If they want to relate their statistics to how concerned the community should be, I think they need to break them down as to type of murders. Home invasions. That clearly should give people pause. Random killings give people pause,” said David Hennessey, an attorney who has successfully defended self-defense clients who have been accused of murder. “If you just look at raw numbers and call them murders I think, yes, that can lead to a false feeling of danger.”

During recent months, IMPD commanders were discussing whether some of the murders investigated by detectives should be reclassified as self-defense homicides.

On Sept. 14, the bodies of Mack Taylor and Alexander Brown were discovered in an alley near the 3000 block of North Gladstone Avenue where detectives determined two days earlier they had attempted to rob a drug dealer.

Detectives have considered whether or not that drug dealer fired back in self-defense of a home invasion robbery.

“You have the right to use deadly force to prevent the threat, imminent threat, you don’t have to wait to get hit,” said Hennessey. “It could be serious bodily injury or death so you can kill someone that is gonna beat you up.”

A few days later three people died of wounds as the result of a shootout in the 2000 block of West 76th Street. A fourth person survived, and, without any witnesses left alive to counter his story, claimed he was defending himself from a drug robbery.

“Just because you’re committing a crime doesn’t mean that you have to allow yourself to be robbed or killed or beaten up,” said Hennessey.

Roshun Johnson, 15, died Sunday after he was shot by a person detectives said he intended to rob.

Wednesday night, a 21-year-old man died of a gunshot wound in the 1100 block of Hardin Boulevard, but detectives said the gunman was cooperative, claimed self-defense and remains free upon further investigation.

Each death will boost Indianapolis’ homicide tally but not necessarily its murder count.

Hennessey said drug dealers and buyers have the same constitutional rights to self-defense as a father protecting his family from a home invasion.

“And the crime he is committing of possessing or selling drugs and didn’t start and didn’t lead to the confrontation that led to the need for deadly force. The crime that precipitated that was the robbery of the drug dealer.

“Now if one of the people in there is going to rob the others, now that is committing a crime that starts it, so that person, if he pulls his gun out first and says, ‘Hey, give me your drugs and money,’ and they pull their guns out and he starts shooting them, that person cannot avail themselves of self-defense.”

While self-defense determinations may reduce Indianapolis’ murder totals for the year, other apparent intentional killings are not being added to the criminal homicide statistics.

This past year the dismembered body of a man was found floating in the White River, but since the Marion County Coroner could not determine the cause of death due to the decomposition of the remains, the case has not been declared a murder.

If the causes of death for several infants have not been determined, those cases will not count toward either the homicide or the murder totals.

Also, IMPD’s admittedly haphazard and cumbersome crime and statistics reporting system makes it virtually impossible to determine an accurate picture of crime in the city from murder to shootings to robberies and car thefts.

For several years, IMPD has not supplied or reported late its Uniform Crime Report statistics to the FBI due to either technical difficulties or criteria revisions.
A failed computer aided dispatch and crime reporting system set the city back four years and $13 million.

When asked to comment on consideration of reclassifying some previously investigated murders as self-defense homicides, and IMPD spokesman said, “At this time we are not yet ready to discuss publicly these theories. We do continue to believe that a number of homicides involve individuals involved in lifestyles that are likely to lead to violence, but we have not yet gathered enough information or facts to talk publicly about it.”

The Marion County Prosecutors Office responded, “How IMPD chooses to classify homicide cases is within their purview and we have no comment on how they define the word “homicide.” Our office reviews cases to determine if a crime such as murder has occurred. There has been no change in the self defense statute or our application of the self defense statute to our review of cases.”

What hasn’t changed is a prosecutor’s discretion to determine if enough evidence of reasonable doubt would lead a jury to find a defendant not guilty of murder due to a self-defense claim thereby making pursuit of such a charge futile or render any future prosecution unconstitutional.

“I think they absolutely charge some cases of murder that may be lesser crimes,” said Hennessy. “I think they charge murder when there is clear evidence of self-defense, should not be charged, should not go to trial and then when they lose, they still call it a murder.

“By far the vast majority of murders are people that know each other. People aren’t running out around killing people that they don’t know.”