INDIANAPOLIS — The five-member Indiana Supreme Court heard a brief appeal Thursday for a Bartholomew County man facing life in prison for a May 2013 quadruple homicide.
During a 20-minute hearing, Columbus attorney Jane Ann Noblitt argued there was a lack of forensic evidence used to convict Samuel Earl Sallee — and what was presented was insufficient to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
On Feb. 25, 2015, a jury in Columbus took two hours to find Sallee guilty of four counts of murder in the killings of Katheryn M. Burton, 53; Thomas W. Smith, 39; Aaron T. Cross, 41; and Shawn L. Burton, 40.
The bodies of all four victims were found inside 2634 E. Main Cross St., Waynesville, where Katheryn Burton and Smith lived and where Cross and Shawn Burton were visiting.
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The four had been shot, and Katheryn Burton also had been stabbed.
Two months after the conviction, Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann sentenced Sallee, 58, to four consecutive sentences of life without parole.
In handing down the maximum sentence, Heimann noted that Sallee has accumulated 18 convictions since 1970 that include multiple burglaries and battery charges as well as escape and robbery.
But because there was no eyewitness, no murder weapon, no DNA nor fingerprint evidence produced in regard to the Waynesville killings, Noblitt characterized the evidence against her client as circumstantial.
“But don’t you agree a conviction can be made on circumstantial evidence?” Justice Steven H. David inquired Thursday.
“Are you asking us to change precedents and statues of review in an appellate court?” Justice Loretta Rush asked Noblitt.
While presenting its case over six days last year in Bartholomew Circuit Court, the prosecution called 37 witnesses and submitted more than 300 pieces of evidence.
One was a cardboard box filled with spray-in foam found next to a Parkside Drive residence where Sallee was staying that contained the wallets of all three male victims.
Speaking Thursday on behalf of the state, deputy attorney general Jesse Drum told the justices the only reasonable conclusion was that Sallee killed the victims for drugs.
When Noblitt was asked by the five justices whether Sallee’s case was vigorously tried in Columbus, she agreed it was.
Her assessment goes against Sallee’s original appeals claim that his two court-appointed trial attorneys, David Nowak and Christopher Clerc, did not represent him to the best of their ability.
Instead, Noblitt’s main argument was that the trial evidence also supports a conclusion that Sallee left the home, returned a few hours later to find the four bodies and then decided to rob and ransack the home.
“My client vigorously maintains … he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Noblitt said.
The attorney also said that while recovered ballistic evidence proves a weapon owned by Sallee was used in the killings, there is no evidence that directly places both Sallee and the weapon at the scene when the killings took place.
But in response, Justice Robert Rucker said such a link is not required by law for a jury to convict a murder defendant.
Both Rush and David indicated they found testimony from one of Sallee’s former cellmates not only credible, but a key factor that rises above the classification of circumstantial evidence.
The cellmate testified that while both were in federal custody in Indianapolis on Aug. 5, 2013, Sallee admitted that he killed the Waynesville victims.
At that time — four months before he was charged with the murders — Sallee seemed convinced that investigators would never find the evidence to charge him, so he was engaging in jailhouse bragging, the cellmate testified.
According to the cellmate’s testimony, Sallee told him he eventually lost his patience after unsuccessfully trying to get methamphetamine from Smith for hours.
That prompted him to raise a gun and announce he intended to rob everyone in the house, the cellmate said.
“One of the guys didn’t take him seriously, so he shot him,” the witness told the jury. “Then he shot the others. He said he aimed for the heart and head to make sure they were dead.”
In closing statements during the original trial, the prosecution contended that after finding himself without a job, money or support from his own family, a despondent Sallee killed and robbed his victims to feed his methamphetamine addiction.
Because the cellmate provided the jury with a number of details determined to be true that were withheld from the media, David told Noblitt on Thursday that testimony could legally be considered direct evidence based on fact.
The cellmate’s credibility was also bolstered by the fact that he was not offered any deals regarding his own criminal case in exchange for his testimony, Rush said.
But Noblitt, who described her client as being savvy about avoiding self-incrimination, brought up a small part of the cellmate’s testimony where he said he wasn’t sure “if anything extra happened” to Kathryn Burton during the killings.
Noblitt implied that phrase suggests someone connected to the investigation may have been feeding withheld information to the cellmate.
“You make a great jury argument to show reasonable doubt, but can we say as a matter of law that you should prevail?” Rucker asked Noblitt.
Besides claiming he was not adequately represented during his trial, Sallee cited two other reasons he wanted to appeal his conviction during a March 24, 2015, interview with The Republic.
- He was not in the courtroom while jurors reviewed photographic evidence.
- His defense team did not hire an investigator to work on Sallee’s behalf.
Neither of those reasons was brought up by Noblitt on Thursday during her oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court.
It was both Sallee’s legal right and sole decision to avoid going through lower appellate judges by taking his appeal directly to the state’s highest court, Noblitt said in a Dec. 4 interview.
But if the justices deny him a new trial, Sallee’s only remaining appeals option will be to petition the U.S. Supreme Court, Noblitt said.
The five justices of the Indiana Supreme Court are under no deadlines to announce their consensus on most matters.
When oral arguments ended Thursday in the appeal of Samuel Earl Sallee, Justice Loretta Rush said only the judges will discuss the matter and issue an opinion at an unspecified time.
In most cases, it takes anywhere from two to 12 months for the five justices to issue a consensus, but occasionally, it takes even longer than a year for an announcement to be made, a court spokeswoman said.