An Indiana teenager who strangled his 10-year-old brother and admired a fictional serial killer should not have been sentenced to life in prison without parole because he was mentally ill, his attorney argued in appealing for a lighter sentence.
Defense lawyer Leanna Weissmann also argued that the judge erred when he let an expert who had never met Andrew Conley testify that the teen might be a psychopath.
"Speculation inferring that a suicidal 17-year-old boy who had never been in trouble in his life is a psychopath from a doctor who never took the time to even talk with the boy has no place in our courtrooms ... and in a decision as to whether that boy will spend the rest of his life in prison," Weissmann wrote in a court brief.
The Indiana Supreme Court will hear arguments on Conley's appeal Monday in South Bend. Conley, now 19, unexpectedly pleaded guilty as his trial was set to begin in September 2010. He was sentenced to life without parole following a five-day hearing before a judge in which his videotaped confession was played.
Conley, then 17, told police he choked his brother, Conner, on Nov. 28, 2009, while they were wrestling at their home in the Ohio River town of Rising Sun. After the boy passed out, Conley dragged him into the kitchen, put on gloves and continued strangling him for at least 20 minutes before wrapping the boy's head in two plastic bags.
Conley repeatedly banged Conner's head on the ground before loading him into the trunk of his car, driving to his girlfriend's home and giving her a promise ring.
Conley told his parents that Conner was staying with a relative. According to courtroom testimony, he asked his father for condoms the next morning and joked with his mother and watched football. Conley also said he stood over his sleeping father with a knife that morning and considered cutting his throat.
The teen's behavior led psychologist James Daum to testify that Conley showed psychopathic characteristics. However, Daum said he couldn't say for certain that Conley was a psychopath because he hadn't examined him. Conley's girlfriend testified that the teen admired the Showtime character Dexter, a serial killer.
Three other mental health experts who examined Conley all concluded he was seriously mentally ill, but prosecutors insisted he was faking. They had another theory: Conley was just evil.
In the end, Judge James Humphrey said he didn't give Conley's supposed mental illness much weight, which Weissmann argued was a mistake.
"Andrew is a severely mentally ill teenager who never got the help he needed," she wrote in the brief. She also claimed that Humphrey, who found that Conner's age at death "far outweighed" any arguments in favor of leniency, didn't attach enough importance to Andrew Conley's youth and clean record.
Weissmann is seeking to have Conley's sentence reduced to 55 years in prison. With Indiana's credit for time served, that would allow him to be released in as little as 25 years, when he is in his 40s.
The Indiana attorney general's office maintains the nature of the crime and Conley's behavior afterward cry out for a life sentence.
"Because of defendant's callous acts, his brother will never experience graduating high school, going to prom, driving his first car, having his first love, getting married or having a child of his own," Deputy Attorney General Henry Flores Jr. wrote in his response filed in court.
Testimony from Daum, the psychologist who didn't examine Conley, was meant to refute claims that Conley was mentally ill, the prosecutor said. The state maintains that Conley's behavior was evidence of a "hardened character." Even if he were mentally ill, all three experts who examined him concluded he knew killing his brother was wrong.