(CN) - An Indiana man sentenced to 240 years in prison for the murder of four people, including a 2-year-old, can get a new trial, the 7th Circuit ruled, finding that prosecutors should not have been able to use hearsay in the original trial.
Antonio Jones was one of three men implicated in a 2004 home invasion that became a quadruple murder. Ronyale Hearne discovered the horrific scene when she arrived to pick up her 2-year-old son, who was staying at the apartment with Anthony McClendon, Jimmie Jones and Laurice Jones.
Police caught a break when James Parks confessed to his brother, Jeffrey Lewis, that he, Jones and a third man, Lenzo Aaron, had committed the crime.
Instead of calling Lewis to testify, the prosecution let two police detectives relate Lewis' statement.
Aaron became the prosecution's star witness, testifying in exchange for a guarantee that he would not be tried for the murders. Although Aaron admitted bringing an AK-47 to the apartment, he claimed that he left without shooting anyone.
Jones was sentenced to 240 years in prison after a jury convicted him of all four counts. He argued on appeal that Lewis' testimony, as related by the detectives, violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him.
But a divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, as did a state collateral review. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and Jones also lost his bid for habeas relief in the Southern District of Indiana.
Though Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Young had rejected Jones' Sixth Amendment claims without reaching the merits, the Chicago-based federal appeals court reversed on Thursday.
"Perhaps Jones is guilty of the crimes with which he has been charged," Judge David Hamilton wrote for the court's three-judge panel. "From the evidence presented at trial, that is a distinct possibility. ... In this case, the Constitution demands that Jones have an opportunity to confront Parks if his statements to Lewis, as reported to the police detectives, are to be used as evidence against him."
Jones must be released or retried within 120 days. Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter reportedly said he plans to refile the charges.
The ruling states that prosecutors should not have let police detectives testify "in detail about an informant's double-hearsay statement accusing Jones as the leader of the robbery and murders."
Prosecutors never called the informant as a witness or gave Jones' defense team a chance to cross-examine the informant, the court found.
"The trial record makes unmistakably clear that the informant's double-hearsay against Jones was in fact used as substantive evidence to prove Jones' guilt, in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights," Hamilton wrote.
When Jones' defense attorney challenged Aaron's credibility as a witness, prosecutors introduced their initial tip from Lewis, the brother of an alleged co-conspirator.
Jones' attorney pointed out that Lewis received a $100,000 award for his tip, and a detective testified that Lewis didn't care about the money and came forward because of the baby, the opinion says.
"The court never instructed the jury that Detective Davis' testimony about the Lewis statement could not be considered for the truth of its contents," Hamilton wrote.
"The record makes clear that Jones in fact suffered repeated violations of his Sixth Amendment right to confront Lewis and Parks," the ruling continues.
Such "testimonial hearsay" is inadmissible unless the witness is not available to testify and the accused was already given a chance to conduct cross-examination.
"Lewis was clearly available - the prosecution had Lewis under subpoena but simply chose not to call him as a witness," Hamilton wrote. "Jones never had a prior opportunity to cross-examine Lewis about his statement."