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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
A memorial to slain Avilla Town Marshal William Miner Jr. stands in front of the town marshal’s office.

Legal lesson in Avilla killer's release

The penal code shall be founded on the principles of reformation, and not of vindictive justice.

– Indiana Constitution

This constitutional edict is of little consolation to the residents of Avilla or the family of former Town Marshal William Miner Jr., who was slain while trying to stop a man who was vandalizing a car 29 years ago. The man was caught, convicted and originally received the death penalty – but is leaving prison today.

William Spranger, 47, has already lived nearly two decades longer than Miner, who was gunned down at age 29.

How could a cop killer get out of prison so soon?

The answer reflects the evolution of the death penalty and raises questions about Indiana’s sentencing practices.

When the Wayne County Circuit Court judge in Richmond sentenced Spranger to death in 1983, Indiana had executed just one convict in the preceding 22 years. Indiana’s death penalty law was only six years old. Few Hoosiers had even heard the phrase “post-conviction relief,” much less knew what it meant.

The death penalty has long been debated, and whether one agrees or disagrees with it, when the people of the state decide to kill someone, every avenue must be explored to make sure the convict is guilty and was well represented. Death row inmates – rightly – have numerous avenues of appeal, including post-conviction relief, which allows them to bring up evidence not mentioned in the trial.

Spranger pursued those appeals for a decade before a new Wayne County judge – the case was transferred there because of so much publicity in Noble County – set aside the death penalty. Two years later, in 1995, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld that decision.

Here’s why the judge set aside the death penalty:

The attorney who originally represented Spranger had intended to argue that while Spranger did shoot Miner, a number of mitigating factors should lessen his sentence. Among them were his age at the time (18), mental health issues, intoxication and his lack of a criminal record. The attorney was planning on attempting to persuade the jury that because the slaying was not planned but occurred during “sudden heat,” a conviction of voluntary manslaughter would be more appropriate than murder. But just before trial, the attorney changed strategy and decided to argue that Spranger’s accomplice had pulled the trigger.Had the attorney pursued the original strategy, the court decided, Spranger would still have been convicted of a crime, but the jury and judge may have been more lenient in the death penalty sentencing."Instead of trying a sullen, unrepentant defendant stonewalling in the face of convincing evidence of guilt," the lower court ruled, "the jury and Court would have before them a young man of limited mental ability with no history of violence or criminal conduct, who had been drinking heavily…and never denied that he shot the marshal but only denied that the killing was intentional."

In November 1997 – 14 1/2 years after Spranger killed Miner – Wayne Circuit Judge Douglas VanMiddlesworth held a new sentencing hearing. He handed Spranger 60 years, the maximum sentence short of execution."

Life without parole at that time was not a sentencing option," said Noble Circuit Judge G. David Laur, who was prosecutor when Miner was killed and successfully argued for the death penalty at the trial level. "That was our legal system as it existed" when Spranger killed Miner.

Realizing the huge gap between a 60-year sentence and execution, Indiana legislators in 1993 passed a law permitting murderers to be sentenced to life in prison. But Spranger's appeals had to be based on laws in place when the slaying occurred.

As Hoosiers familiar with the state's criminal justice system have learned, most inmates receive two days credit of two days for each day they serve on good behavior, allowing them to be released after serving half their sentence. Prison officials generally argue that prisoners need motivation to not cause problems, and without the "good time" credit, prisons would become even more violent.

Their argument is sound. But should that apply to murder and other heinous crimes – especially when the victim is a police officer? Is a full 50 percent credit fair and just? In addition, Spranger also earned his GED and an associate's degree in prison, all of which allows him to be released today – 29 years and two months after he was arrested.

Spranger's name continues to live on in the annals of Indiana courts because the Supreme Court ruled in Spranger vs. State that an appeals court can overrule a lower court's decision that a defense attorney gave ineffective representation only if that decision was clearly erroneous. The case is cited in a number of appeals and rulings, "not because what the Supreme Court said was groundbreaking, but because the case is a concise summation of the applicable law on issues common to post-conviction relief cases," said Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose comments were based on research by Deputy Attorney General Steve Creason.

"During that time frame, the Spranger case was one of a handful where the Indiana Supreme Court had the opportunity to establish uniform principles to govern all PCR cases."

Corbin emphasizes: "This case is not just a historical footnote; there was a human tragedy involved. Avilla Town Marshal William Miner was a police officer who lost his life in the line of duty while protecting the public."

For Laur – and for many others in Avilla – "Thirty years certainly went quickly."

Tracy Warner, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1981. He can be reached at 461-8113 or by email, twarner@jg.net.

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