Monday, June 11, 2007

Arson Investigation Points Up Two Problems With Indiana Law

Reading Michael Malik's story in today's Star about the ongoing investigation of 13 suspicious fires on Indianapolis' south side in the last 15 days, I was reminded of two shortcomings in Indiana law I've written about on this blog. Investigators believe the suspected cases of arson are linked to a gang with anti-black and anti-Hispanic sentiments. As I've stated on numerous previous occasions, Indiana is one of only five states in the country without a hate crimes law. Secondly, one of the police investigators is Sherron Franklin, a city-county councilor. This raises the issue of Indiana's constitutional prohibition on a person executing duties within more than one branch of government at the same time.

At least three fires arising out of the arson investigation have occurred after police took into custody Robert Green, the man police believe was responsible for the earlier fires. Although Green is being held on an unrelated theft charge, the prosecutor's office says police have not produced enough evidence to hold Green on the arson charges. IMPD Officer Sherron Franklin claims Green is a former member of the gang and another fellow gang member is setting additional fires to take the heat off of Green. Malik writes:

Sherron Franklin, an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer assigned to the fire investigation unit, said Sunday she believes that someone Green knows from his days in the 2-1 FATAL gang is setting fires to confuse investigators.

"I stand by my probable cause I wrote up on Robert Green," said Franklin, who also is a member of the City-County Council. "A person told somebody else they were going to set those fires to take the heat off of Robert Green." . . .

In the recent spate of fires, Green was arrested on preliminary charges of arson and burglary after police said he bragged about setting several of the fires in vacant houses and garages on the city's Southside. However, no formal arson charges were filed by the Marion County prosecutor's office.

Franklin wrote the key affidavit prosecutors would have used in filing charges against Green. In the affidavit, two people say Green bragged to them about setting the fires "for the fun of it," and one said he saw Green enter two vacant houses and set them on fire.

Matthew Symons, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said Sunday there wasn't enough evidence to file arson charges.

"We don't necessarily disagree with the investigators. We just don't have enough evidence to file charges," Symons said. "Both the prosecutor's office and the police believe he's a suspect." Franklin said it is frustrating for officers to finish an investigation and see no charges filed.

"When the police and the detectives do all they can do and it goes to the next step, we can't control what someone else may do," she said . . .

"That goes to show you unless you are at every vacant residence, you can't stop it," Franklin said.

Franklin is clearly expressing dissatisfaction with the prosecutor's office's handling of the case. This is particularly concerning because, as a city-county councilor, she can influence the prosecutor's office budget and other matters affecting the administration of his office if she doesn't like how he's handling one of her cases she handles for IMPD. Clearly, this is precisely the type of conflict of interest the framers of our own state constitution sought to avoid in Article III, Section 1, which reads: "The powers of the Government are divided into three separate departments; the Legislative, the Executive including the Administrative, and the Judicial: and no person, charged with official duties under one of these departments, shall exercise any of the functions of another, except as in this Constitution expressly provided." Notwithstanding the constitutional prohibition, lawmakers enacted a statute which allows Franklin to both work as a police officer for the city and serve on the council. That law should be challenged and overturned, or simply repealed by the legislature.

Some may recall that Prosecutor Carl Brizzi cited the burning of a south side home for racially motivated reasons earlier this year in urging the General Assembly to adopt a hate crimes law. Investigators believe the recent fires are related to that earlier case. Malik writes:

The 2-1 FATAL gang is mostly made up of white males and marks its territory with anti-black or anti-Hispanic graffiti, most experts say. The Indianapolis gang also sets fires and first drew headlines in 2005 when members burned down a vacant house because they mistakenly thought a black family was moving in.

When the man investigators believe led the gang was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the arson, prosecutors said that would all but "dissolve" the gang. Dennis Craig, two other men and a woman pleaded guilty in the case.

If the fires are indeed related to this gang, you have to wonder if the fires are meant to send a message to blacks and Hispanics that they aren't welcome in these south side neighborhoods. A hate crimes law would allow for enhanced sentencing of a person convicted of burning down these homes because of racial bias. Such an enhanced sentence would be entirely appropriate in a case like this where entire neighborhoods are being terrorized because of some one's bias against a person's skin color or ethnic background. The legislature needs to reconsider the hate crimes legislation which was defeated in the House this year. The law would help the prosecutor with cases like this, and it would remove the stigma attached to our state for being in the lonesome company of Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia and Wyoming as the only states without such a law.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but arson is already a serious felony which can result in extremely lengthy prison sentences. I see no evidence that arsons can't be prosecuted effectively under currently law.

Anonymous said...

In these instances, it seems like the offense may only be a "B" felony. The structure burned must be valued at over $5000 for the offense to be a class B felony. Given that these were all abandoned garages that were burned, they may well have been worth less than $5000 each. This would mean 13 counts of a class D felony; given that sentences typically run concurrently, the arsonist very well may only spend one year in prison.

Anonymous said...

is this subject matter too complex for wilson to comment? I know it is for me!

Anonymous said...

hate crimes laws are anti-free speech

Anonymous said...

"I hate white people and hope they get killed"

"I hate Asians and hope they get killed"

"I hate gays and hope they get killed"

None of those phrases are against the law in the rest of the US, where hate crime statutes actually exist.

If you're going to argue that hate crime laws limit free speech, you're taking some bizarre approach that committing a violent felony is equivalent to protected speech.