Chesterton Tribune

Appeals Court upholds 85-year sentence in Luke Oil homicide

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Bruce Guess, the Liberty Township man who confessed to bludgeoning a Luke Oil clerk to death in December 2008, was appropriately sentenced to 85 years in prison.

So the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday in Guess’ petition for re-sentencing.

In September 2009, Porter Superior Court Roger Bradford sentenced Guess to the maximum—65 years for murder and 20 for robbery—after Guess cold-pleaded guilty to the charges earlier in the summer. He did so without benefit of an agreement, without expectation of a dismissal or downgrading of the charges, and without expectation of a reduced sentence, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said at the time.

Guess’ attorney, Peter Boyles, had asked Bradford to impose a total sentence of 65 years, arguing that Guess suffers from mental issues.

But Bradford noted in his ruling that the Indiana Court of Appeals has generally held that a maximum sentence in a murder case requires a “worst of the worst test” and that—as he put it—“I’ve unfortunately presided over several murder cases and this, there’s no good way to say this, but some are more brutal than others and this was definitely one of the more brutal that I’ve seen.”

Guess told investigators after his arrest—just hours after the murder of Barbara Heckman on Dec. 19, 2008, at the Luke Oil convenience store at U.S. Highway 6 and Meridian Road in Liberty Township—that he was the one who actually bludgeoned Heckman with a mini sledge hammer. His accomplice, Steven Jorden, also of Liberty Township, was sentenced to 57 years for his role in the crime.

Guess specifically argued in his appeal that Bradford erred in the following three ways:

•By failing to find his “acceptance of responsibility by pleading guilty and cooperating with law enforcement to be a mitigating circumstance.”

•By “abusing” his “discretion” in finding Guess’ criminal history—and Guess’ “decision to follow through with the planned assault and robbery”—to be aggravating circumstances.

•And by failing to consider that Guess had “no significant history of violence that was similar to the instant offense” and that he suffers from “psychological issues.”

The court found no merit to any of Guess’ arguments, however.

Acceptance of Responsibility

On the subject of Guess’ “acceptance of responsibility,” the court found that his plea was “more likely the result of pragmatism than acceptance of responsibility and remorse.”

“This is so because the evidence against Guess was overwhelming, particularly given that, according to the probable cause affidavit, witnesses identified Guess exiting the store; Jorden turned himself into law enforcement; and Guess made incriminating statements to law enforcement,” the court stated.

“Furthermore,” the court added, “according to statements made during the guilty plea hearing, Guess pleaded guilty in order to avoid a count of life without parole being filed against him.”

Abuse of Discretion

Nor did Bradford abuse his discretion in weighing Guess’ criminal history and decision to proceed with the planned assault and robbery as aggravating circumstances.

In noting that Guess had 14 juvenile adjudications prior to the murder—seven of which would have constituted felony offenses of theft, robbery, and burglary if committed by an adult—the court was unable to “say that the trial court abused its discretion in finding it to be a significant aggravating circumstance.”

The court similarly found that Bradford did not abuse his discretion in finding that Guess’ “decision to continue and escalate the offense against Heckman despite the opportunity to terminate the original plan.”

Inappropriate Sentence

Finally, in upholding the general appropriateness of Bradford’s sentence—against Guess’ contention that “his conduct and character do not support the maximum sentence as he ‘is neither the worst offender nor was the commission of this offense particularly egregious’”—the court begins by making the following observations:

•“The night of the robbery, Guess lured Heckman into the men’s restroom by clogging a toilet. As Heckman attempted to fix the toilet, Guess took a hammer from Jorden and brutally struck Heckman in the head several times. He then left her to die on the bathroom floor as he pillaged the store for cash and cigarettes.”

•“As to Guess’ character, he has a lengthy criminal history, amassing numerous juvenile adjudications over a short period of time. Clearly, prior attempts to rehabilitate Guess and to deter him from future unlawful conduct have failed.”

•“While acknowledging Guess’ mental issues, we find nothing in the record to indicate that (1) he was unable to control his behavior due to his mental disorders; (2) his mental disorders limited his ability to function; or (3) that there was a nexus between the disorders and the crime.”



Posted 6/10/2010