When the man who is arguably Allen County's most notorious criminal defendant takes his seat in a courtroom Friday morning, Anthony Churchward will also be there.
It's a position many wouldn't relish, being so close to someone accused of sexually assaulting and killing a little girl in 1988. But Churchward has been in uncomfortable positions before, defending people charged in some of the county's most high-profile cases.
The veteran attorney defended Michael Plumadore, who was convicted in 2012 of abducting a 9-year-old girl, killing her with a brick and using a hacksaw to cut her body into pieces. He defended Gentry Mosley, a former Fort Wayne police officer accused of shooting to death a 21-year-old man and wounding another in 1997 at an entertainment complex on the city's southeast side. A jury found Mosley not guilty in 2002.
Churchward will now defend John D. Miller, the 59-year-old Grabill man who was arrested July 15 at his home and charged with murder in the death of 8-year-old April Tinsley.
The arrest capped a three-decade search for the killer of the girl who disappeared from her Fort Wayne neighborhood April 1, 1988, and was found dead three days later in a DeKalb County ditch.
“Everybody deserves a defense,” Churchward said. “Everybody's entitled to due process under the law.”
Miller is scheduled to appear Friday in Allen Superior Court, where Judge John Surbeck could schedule a trial date. It is one of the first steps in a case that has drawn national attention and likely will be among the most closely watched in local history.
The case will be challenging to defend. Police say Miller, who is also charged with child molesting, confessed to strangling the girl after he forced himself on her at his home and to dumping her body the next day.
DNA recovered from the crime scene and other locations in Fort Wayne and Grabill ties him to the killing, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Randy Hammond, Allen County's chief public defender, said he didn't hesitate to assign Churchward to the case. He describes Churchward as a thoughtful, experienced defense attorney whose attention to detail benefits clients.
“I wouldn't assign him to that case if he wasn't qualified,” Hammond said. “We handle a lot of very serious cases. We're fortunate to have very qualified attorneys to handle (those) cases.”
Janet Tinsley, April's mother, told The Journal Gazette she wants Miller to be executed, but prosecutors have not said whether they will seek the death penalty. Indiana law allows prosecutors to ask for the death penalty in murder cases if there is at least one aggravating factor. An aggravating factor could be killing while committing another felony, such as child molesting.
Churchward, 48, grew up in Fort Wayne and graduated from Wayne High School in 1988. He attended Indiana University in Bloomington and earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from IPFW.
After earning a law degree from the University of Toledo in 1998, he spent two years as a deputy prosecutor in the Allen County prosecutor's office. Churchward then joined Hammond's law firm and started his own practice in 2015.
He was part of defense teams for two men – Ronrico Hatch and Simon Rios – who faced the death penalty in separate cases. Both men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards said at the time she didn't seek the death penalty in the Plumadore case only because the victim's family had asked her not to.
Focus on client
Churchward said he has met briefly with Miller and is working to gather information. He and other experts say high-profile cases can be challenging, but defense attorneys must focus on their clients instead of news coverage and public opinion.
Drew Findling, a defense attorney in Atlanta, is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. His list of clients includes platinum-selling rappers Waka Flocka Flame and Gucci Mane.
Effective defense attorneys in closely watched cases shield their clients from the spotlight, Findling said, and focus their work on the defendant.
“It's something that requires experience that you grow into over time,” he said. “The thing to remember about high-profile cases is it's not about you. From a defense perspective, it's about your client.
“This is not different from any other case. You can't be enamored by the light and the glory.”
Fort Wayne defense attorney Nikos Nakos said one challenge with such cases is media coverage that is difficult to escape.
“I always try not to take cases home,” said Nakos, who has handled high-level felony cases including a death penalty case. “On high-profile cases, it's almost impossible not to.”
Churchward takes advice from his colleagues to heart. He knows he can't avoid the attention on him, the case and his client, but he can adjust his focus.
“Really, you just try to do the same thing – treat everybody the same if they're charged with a misdemeanor or if they're charged with something as serious as Mr. Miller is charged with,” Churchward said.
At a glance
Education: Graduated from Wayne High School in 1988; attended Indiana University in Bloomington and earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from IPFW; law degree from the University of Toledo in 1998
Experience: Former Allen County deputy prosecutor; defense attorney since 2000