Prosecutor struggles to overcome Marion County murder case setbacks

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office boasts a 75 percent success rate in winning 15 of 20 murder cases brought to trial so far this year.

But four murder case dismissals highlight the difficulty prosecutors have in bringing accused killers to justice.

Dontae Davis was sentenced this week to four years of home detention, with four years suspended, after his conviction as a serious violent felon in possession of a firearm.

The state’s case versus Davis for the killing of Wilbur Morton outside a downtown Indianapolis bar in January of 2017 was dismissed this past spring.

“Witnesses were unwilling or unable to come forward with what exactly took place,” said Chief Trial Deputy Ryan Mears. “That incident happened in front of very many people. There are people out there who know what happened and we’re hopeful that at some point in time they’ll come forward and provide us with information.”

The killing took place on the periphery of a fight involving at least a dozen women outside of the Bu Da Lounge on Market Street, a battle that was captured on cell phone video just before a gunshot was heard.

Witnesses identified Davis as Morton’s killer, but then changed their minds.

“Several of those witnesses, to my understanding, were members of the deceased’s family who were there that night,” said Davis’ attorney Gregory Spencer, “and the other witness, as is my understanding, was a friend, not a family member.”

Spencer said that witness’ account was not consistent and did not match a coroner’s autopsy report.

Instead, prosecutors settled for a gun conviction on an unrelated case that will keep Davis on the radar of Community Corrections while serving his sentence on electronic monitoring.

“That means essentially he will have to serve that time confined to home,” said Spencer. “He will have to have permission to try to travel for work, employment, family and all of that and will be confined to his home.”

Dwayne Springfield has never been arrested for murder, but recently he received a 12-year sentence for the same charge to which Davis pleaded guilty.

“In Mr. Springfield’s case he was convicted of multiple counts, not just the Serious Violent Felon,” said Mears. “In addition, we filed the habitual offender on that charge and so on the SVF I think he got an actual sentence of 12 years, on the other charges that’s where he got the additional 18 years. I know there was a victim on this case. I know there was a battery on a police officer that’s a level five felony.”

Andrece Tigner was released from custody earlier this year as double murder charges against him were dismissed in a pair of killings on the near north side in 2016.

Mears said a judge’s decision to not allow a key conversation into the trial convinced prosecutors to drop the case in the hope that new evidence or eyewitness testimony would evolve.

Prosecutors are utilizing new tools in their efforts to convince witnesses to testify.

Mears said prosecutors were recently able to access the $300,000 witness protection fund established by Mayor Joe Hogsett last fall to support a woman recently called to testify in a murder case.

“She was concerned for her safety,” said Mears. “She expressed those concerns to us and we were able to use those funds to put her in a position where she was safe, she was not out on the street, where she was away from the defendant and his friends and she came in and testified and we were able to get a guilty verdict.”

Mears said the assignment of a corporal from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to keep tabs on witnesses in order to convince them to cooperate and testify recently paid off in an attempt murder conviction.

“All of our witnesses, at one time or another, were held in contempt of court because they said, ‘We’re not showing up, we’re not cooperating,’” said Mears, “and in that particular case, with the assistance of the sheriff’s department, we were able to find those witnesses, secure those witnesses, bring them in front of the judge and the judge ordered them to testify. They were held in contempt, they served sentences for their contempt and ultimately because we had that additional resource we had someone who could follow up and find them and then build a relationship with those folks to get them to come into court, we were able to get an attempted murder conviction.”

While retaliation is constant threat when murders remained unsolved, Spencer said Davis is looking forward to serving his sentence on home detention and putting the Bu Da Lounge case behind him.

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