Prosecutor to bounce back after three murder acquittals

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry contends if you discount one bad week at the start of February, his office has had a good year convicting defendants in more than a dozen homicide cases.

“Of those 16 cases, either by a guilty verdict or by a plea, in 8 of those 16 there’s been a conviction on the lead charge,” Curry recounted. “In 13 of the 16 there’s either been a conviction to the lead charge or otherwise serious felony.”

While duly satisfied by the six murder convictions, Curry is realist enough to know his staff can’t win them all after three defendants were found not guilty.

One of the freed men was accused drug gang hit man John Means.

“In the course of a year are we going to have peaks and valleys? Absolutely,” said Curry.  “This is the real world. This is not TV. We’re going to lose a case on occasion.”

The Means case was one where prosecutors battled the defense to a draw last fall only to eventually lose on retrial Feb. 1.

“In the Means case, it was an entirely circumstantial case where some of the circumstantial evidence was subject to two interpretations,” said Curry who sent his deputy prosecutors back to court with essentially the same case that resulted in a hung jury months earlier.  “My belief is that it was essentially the same trial and that it was circumstantial evidence, he was apprehended near the scene, some text messages, that sort of thing.”

Attorney Keirian Brown successfully beat the state in the second go round.

“They really had no forensic evidence or anything. There was no DNA of John’s found at the scene. There were no fingerprints of John’s found at the scene,” said Brown.  “This murder investigation went from being about finding the killers to now convicting John Means.”

Brown said Means’ own text messages, jailhouse letters and taped phone conversations were inconclusive at best.

Means’ arrest for the 2014 Hovey Street killings of Julius Douglas and Carlos Jefferson and two more murders just days before came as IMPD homicide detectives struggled to solve a dramatic increase in multiple slayings as killers sought to execute both their main targets and any possible witnesses or associates nearby.

In 2016, IMPD’s homicide branch solved just 55 percent of its cases from a record annual workload investigated by the same number of detectives who previously saw their success rate top 70 percent.

Investigators often cite the reluctance of witnesses to cooperate as a stumbling block to arresting killers though Brown, a former deputy prosecutor, disagreed.

“The narrative is they aren’t getting cooperation from witnesses, no one’s coming forward, they don’t have any leads because no one’s helping,” said Brown. “That’s the narrative that they want you to believe, but in these cases I’ve seen the evidence of the people coming forward. I’ve seen all the statements that people have made. All the interviews they’ve done with various people. It almost seems to be the opposite that they get too much information and they’re overwhelmed and they don’t run it down and it becomes too overwhelming and they almost throw their hands up.

“The law enforcement investigators, the police, may be overwhelmed and won’t necessarily track down every lead or research every lead. Maybe they don’t have the resources.”

Prosecutors also lost two other murder cases during the first week of the month.

Randall Beckham was found not guilty of the murder of a neighbor with an ice pick on the eastside in early 2015.

“In the Beckham case, the victim was not discovered until a few days after the fact,” said Curry. “The big difficult issue there was that there was unknown male DNA found on the scene that did not tie into the defendant.”

Within hours of Beckham’s acquittal, a jury in another court found Brian Wellington not guilty of a northeast side killing in 2015, though he was convicted on a minor handgun charge.

“In the Wellington case, classic situation we encounter, two eyewitnesses backed up and we tried to get in their prior statements as substantive evidence which is difficult to do under the law,” said Curry as he explained that sometimes prosecutors are sure they have the right defendant but are unable to introduce all their evidence.

“If we have any doubts as to whether we have the right person, we’re not going to go to trial on that case,” said the prosecutor.

Brown said while the acquittals are good news for defendants like Means, they often signal a dead end in the search for justice.

“Once you’ve taken these homicides and alleged that someone has done it and created a whole story around this that turns out to be not supported in fact, you tainted the prosecution of anyone subsequently,” said the private defense attorney. “There are killers out there who are not being investigated and who are being left to go kill again.”

As for Means, he remains free on bond while awaiting trial for another unsolved double murder, supposedly at the behest of the Grundy drug gang, itself the target of a massive IMPD investigation that seems to have floundered amidst rulings that have disallowed search evidence and unreliable witnesses.

Days after his Hovey Street acquittal, Means was arrested in a reputed eastside drug house where guns discovered.

Brown said his client was simply, again, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Curry for his part professes not to be discouraged by the recent murder trial slump and indicated he intends to run for reelection to a third term as prosecutor in 2018.

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