High court to review sentence in plea bargain conundrum

Julie Gardiner  no longer faces the prospect of spending the next 20 years in prison instead of likely being free on a suspended sentence due to a standard, but inadequate plea bargain and a rigid sentencing scheme. In a case-of-first-impression decision issued on April 30, 2010, the Indiana Supreme Court determined that due to its subsequent modification, Gardiner no longer has a prior unrelated felony conviction mandating imposition of the lengthy prison sentence.

Gardiner’s problem was this: On March 2, 2007, she plead guilty to manufacturing methamphetamine [ the actual charge was "possession  of chemical precursors with intent to manufacture controlled substances"] in Hamilton County, a Class D felony. By agreement, the felony charge was converted to a misdemeanor in February 2008 after she successfully completed a year of probation. But at the time of the plea, Gardiner’s lawyer failed to adequately consider the effect of another pending felony charge against her in Marion County for selling methamphetamine  within 1,000 feet of a school.

Gardiner was convicted of the second charge prior to the conversion of her initial plea to a misdemeanor. As a result, she was found to be convicted of two felonies, resulting in the minimum 20 year sentence. Her sentence was affirmed on appeal, even though both the trial and the appellate court judges noted her good behavior and expressed dismay over the sentence. In its opinion, the appellate court stated that “had the Hamilton County court immediately reduced Gardiner’s prior Class D felony to a Class A misdemeanor, then the [Marion County] trial court would have had the discretion to order a suspended sentence” in the second case. Gardiner v. State, 903 N.E.2d 552, 555 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009). Furthermore, the appellate court expressed its frustration in a “sentencing scheme that so illogically limits the sentencing judge’s discretion” to reward a defendant’s good behavior. Id. at 556. The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer and heard oral argument early in October.

In its April 30 decision, the high court found that “the entry of judgment of conviction upon the misdemeanor constitutes a new and different judgment effectively vacating the prior judgment.”  It concluded that as a matter of statutory construction “Gardiner no longer has a prior unrelated felony conviction” and remanded the case to the trial court for further consideration.