Artist sketches are generally the only way television stations can visually portray courtroom proceedings in the state of Indiana. On Monday however, the Court of Appeals of Indiana traveled to the IU South Bend campus and opened its doors to students and video cameras.
Founded by the Indiana General Assembly in 1891, the Court of Appeals is working to make legal proceedings more understandable for the common person. After all, courtrooms can be an intimidating place. They are often stately rooms anchored by a stern judge in a black robe, with mounting animosity between plaintiff and defendant and a hefty barrage of legal jargon.
"It’s wonderful that students actually get to hear a live case. It's very different than reading about it or even watching it on TV or on the web. Students are able to interact with the justices, the judges are watching for interactions and stopping the lawyers to explain things,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bennion, an associate professor of political science at IU South Bend.
Each year 15 appellate judges, split into five rotating panels of three, consider a combined total of roughly 2,300 cases. In fact, the Indiana constitution provides every defendant an, "absolute right to one appeal." Yet consideration doesn’t necessarily translate to an overturned case. In 2011, the Court of Appeals upheld 80 percent of the cases that came before it.
On the IU South Bend appellate docket Monday; the case of Thomas Overton, 65, of Roanoke, Ind. – a small rural town located about 15 miles southwest of Fort Wayne.
In April 2011, a teenage boy accused Overton, a former IPFW lecturer, of touching his penis in 2002 when he lived next-door to the then 56-year-old. Following a month-long investigation, the Huntington County Prosecutor’s Office charged Overton with Child Molestation, a Class A felony.
In March 2012, Huntington County Circuit Judge Thomas Hakes convicted Overton of a lesser form of Child Molestation, a Class C felony. In May he was sentenced to six years in state prison, with two years suspended to probation.
Unlike Class A felonies, Class C felonies have a five-year statute of limitations within the state of Indiana. Overton and his defense attorney Robert Gevers II of Fort Wayne appealed the conviction and subsequent sentencing, arguing the statute of limitations ran dry four years before charges were filed.
"So the issue becomes, in Mr. Overton's case, did the court and the judge at the trial court level, make an error,” Gevers II said while facing a panel of three appellate judges: Hon. Michael Barnes of St. Joseph County, Hon. Nancy Vaidik of Porter County and Hon. Terry Crone of St. Joseph County.
Standing beneath bright auditorium lights and with an orange stage curtain as a backdrop, Gevers II trusted that state statutes, not speculation would decide his client’s fate.
"They have to work within the bounds of the law, within due procedure and process, and within the bounds of precedent. Even if their hearts are telling them something different, even if they don't want to overturn that conviction, they sometimes have to,” Dr. Bennion added.
Overton, who according to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette was convicted of Child Accosting for Immoral Purposes in 1970 and Criminal Sexual Conduct in 1982, will learn if his appeal is granted within 45 days.
Since 2000, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has held 335 “Appeals on Wheels” hearings. This marked the second time the court has heard a case on the IU South Bend campus.
"It made for a great venue to come down to a place that I knew and love, and see the law system at work as I prepare for law school,” said Eric Nichols, an IU South Bend graduate and incoming Notre Dame law school student.
To learn more about Overton v. State and read a list of facts about the Court of Appeals of Indiana, just click on the document attached to this story.