INDIANAPOLIS — The COVID pandemic shut down of Indianapolis courtrooms in 2020 combined with the move last year to a new courthouse and a talent drain that saw veteran prosecutors leave their posts along with increased juror demands to overcome the standard of reasonable doubt to cast guilty verdicts led to a rebooting of the Marion County criminal justice system over the past couple years.
The Marion County Prosecutors Office is back on firm footing in the first month of 2023 with a handful of violent felony criminal convictions this week along with several murder verdicts as prosecutors clear out the criminal justice backlog of the last couple of years.
”Just this week we did five jury trials, all five went to verdict and all five came back guilty,” said Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears. “That includes two murder cases, an attempt murder case and a child molest case and a neglect causing death.”
Of the murder convictions that have come back this month, perhaps the most significant was the case against Sammy Tinnin for the August 2020 killing of John Shockley in the parking lot of an eastside fast-food restaurant.
”One of the eyewitnesses who was involved in that case passed away, lost her life,” said Mears. “We actually had to dismiss that case at one point in time.”
Shockley was eating breakfast in his car that morning when Tinnin, without provocation, walked up and opened fire.
In 2021, the woman driving Tinnin around that day and gave a statement to police died of natural causes.
”I made a commitment to the family. I sat down with the family and said just because its dismissed does not mean this over,” recalled Mears. ”We continued to work on it. We were able to develop some additional evidence to make up for the fact that we had lost one of our primary witnesses and the jury came back with a guilty verdict on Tuesday.”
In 2022, the prosecutor’s office scored an 86% conviction rate for murder cases taken to trial or resolved by guilty pleas, despite four dismissals and four acquittals.
”We’ve had two in the last two weeks with two individuals pleading guilty to murder,” said Mears. “There was someone who sat through a day-and-a-half of trial and basically we rested our case, and I think at that point in time the lightbulb went on that the State’s put together a pretty strong case here which led to a plea agreement in the middle trial which you don’t typically see.”
Along with the logistical challenges of restarting courtroom prosecutions after the COIVD shutdown, recontacting witnesses on cases gone dormant and acclimating new staff to the new courthouse that opened in January of 2022, Mears said jurors have become more sophisticated in their standard of State’s evidence before deciding to cast guilty verdicts.
”The jurors’ expectations have changed because everybody knows that most people are used to relying on their cell phone to conduct business, to keep in contact with their friends, and then people who are involved in violent crime are probably doing the same thing,” said the prosecutor who won election last fall partially based on his commitment to focus on serious crime and to downplay the prosecution of some minor offenses. ”Before it was very much, ‘Hey, this person saw someone do it.’ Certainly that’s a component of what we do but very often times we are getting those facts supported by this digital evidence.
”Now we’re providing additional evidence. Forensic evidence supporting that identification and I think that’s why you’re seeing so many guilty verdicts.”
Mears was quick to credit enhanced investigations conducted by IMPD and its analysts that have given prosecutors more technical forensic evidence to prove their cases.