On October 10th the Court of Appeals of Indiana visited Mishawaka High School to present the case of Jennifer L. Dean v. State. Through the Appeals on Wheels program, Mishawaka students and staff were introduced to a civic court case oral argument on the MHS auditorium stage. The court consisted of Judge Melissa S. May, Judge Cale J. Bradford, and Judge Elizabeth F. Tavitas; and with official introduction by student body president, Ayla Read, the case discussion began.
All Mishawaka Seniors and staff were invited to attend the program, a unique experience for many. Jada Rogers, Appeals on Wheels attendee, shared her perspective on the trial, “I think that the Appeals on Wheels experience was important for MHS Students because it allowed us to gain a stronger understanding of typical case proceedings. I think anyone that had an interest in law, in any way, got a lot out of the experience and in a similar manner, maybe it helped someone discover a new interest.” Jada continued on to say, “Personally, I enjoyed the experience so I would love to see more like it in the future. This specific one was just for seniors, but I really think the underclassmen would love to do something similar to the Appeals on Wheels case.”
Shelley Yoder, MHS Government teacher and Appeals on Wheels school coordinator, used the event as a topic of discussion in her classes. Applying real world scenarios to information derived from textbooks not only connects students to the topic at hand, but it also engages them in peer discussions.
Mrs. Yoder said, “I think that any opportunity teachers get to show students real-world applications of things that are taught in class is worthwhile.” She continued, “I had some great discussions in my class about the laws relevant to the case and the process the defendant went through. We were all anxious to see how the judges ruled and were a bit surprised by the outcome!”
The Appeals on Wheels program is a crucial opportunity for students to see in action, information learned in the classroom under real-world context. Students from Mishawaka learned the fundamentals of an oral argument, the organization of an appeals trial, and varying legal factors during the civic oral argument.
Mrs. Yoder said, “I am hoping to have Appeals on Wheels visit again next year. It was a lot of work to coordinate, but I think it was a good experience!”
Case at a Glance:
In June of 2021, three friends of Dean (Tyrone Leftridge, Shianne Brooks-Brown, and Shianne’s daughter) were known to be residing in her place of residence in Flora, Indiana. On June 15, 2021, a conspiracy was formed between Leftridge, Brooks-Brown, and Dean involving the alleged robbery of an individual by the name of Willie Smith—met on an online dating app. Brooks-Brown and Leftridge were to meet this individual and obtain the money, with Dean receiving a percentage of the profit for the babysitting of Shianne’s daughter. Dean proceeded to provide Brooks-Brown and Leftridge with a small baseball bat and a bandana to conceal their identity. Once Willie arrived, he exited his vehicle and pulled out a pocket knife. This is when Brooks-Brown or Leftridge allegedly retaliated by striking Smith in the head with the baseball bat several times. Once Leftridge and Brooks-Brown returned to Dean’s residence, Dean refused to call the police when they requested she do so, and Smith later died from the head trauma received.
Dean was charged with felony murder and conspiracy to commit robbery resulting in serious bodily injury following the alleged robbery. Her case argument is based on three factors: the courts fundamental error during voir dire, insufficient evidence for conviction, and inappropriate sentencing.
The case argument primarily focused on during the oral argument was the significance of fundamental error made during jury instruction on the quantification of the reasonable doubt standard. During voir dire, the trial court remarked that “It’s perfect, 80 percent. I mean he nailed it,” referring to the determination of reasonable doubt. Dean believed this statement influenced the decision making of jurors, providing necessary cause for retrial.
The appellee began his rebuttal to these claims by stating that reasonable doubt is based on “common sense,” and despite the unjust quantification, the fleeting comment does not hold as much gravity as juror rules. He also included that the juror who made the initial comment of quantification was removed from the jury altogether, promoting fairness in the courtroom.
The appellant’s rebuttal focused on the danger of affirmation to such qualifications. He remarked that, “This type of quantification is not permissible.” Given that reasonable doubt is inherently subjective, the quantifying of such a factor can significantly influence the overall decision of a jury. The appellant then continued on to remark that Dean’s punishment does not in fact fit the crime. With the potential sentencing of 60 years in jail, the appellant compared this sentencing to that of Leftridge who received 35 years. Given that Dean was not present during the murder itself, the appellant feels the sentencing to be too “extreme.”
Dean’s claim that the quantification of reasonable doubt falls under the umbrella of fundamental error and therefore constitutes her right to a mistrial was denied by the court. Dean’s objection to this did not arise until after the trial with no mention made during the hearing whatsoever. The court ruled that despite the trial court’s statement being improper, it does not constitute fundamental error. Jennifer Dean has officially been convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 60 years in prison for the crime committed.