The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 15, 2016 6:18 pm

'02 slaying defendant seeking new sentence

Rebecca S. Green | The Journal Gazette

Rheann Kelly is not scheduled for release from prison for another 17 years, but the 33-year-old woman wants out of prison early.

She was back in Allen Superior Court on Friday afternoon on a hearing for post-conviction relief, looking for Allen Superior Court Judge John Surbeck to alter her 75-year prison sentence received in connection with the August 2002 murder of Cheri Sue Hartman, 17.

A jury convicted Kelly of felony murder, robbery, abuse of a corpse and assisting a criminal, believing she acted alongside four others in the abduction and killing of Hartman as she got home from work.

A group led by Ronrico Hatch, then 21; and including Kelly, then 19; Christopher Hovis, then 21; Brent Marks, then 21; and Christine Johnston, then 21; abducted Hartman, took the teen to a field off Dupont Road, stripped her, beat her and forced her to beg for her life. Hatch shot her through the mouth. The group returned to the scene a little while later with some gasoline and set her body on fire. 

At the time of the murder, it was reported that Hovis and Kelly were dating and that the original plan had been to abduct Hartman and take her to the remote area and make her walk home naked because she had flirted with Hovis.

Hartman’s charred body was found on Aug. 20, 2002. The group was arrested that same day in DeKalb County on Interstate 69 as they drove back from Detroit. Hartman’s abduction prompted Fort Wayne’s first Amber Alert. 

Hatch pleaded guilty to murder and abuse of a corpse, avoiding the death penalty. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Hovis received a prison sentence of 70 years in prison, pleading guilty to felony murder, criminal confinement, criminal gang activity, assisting a criminal and possession of a handgun.

Johnston admitted guilt to charges of robbery and criminal gang activity, and was sentenced to a total of 25 years in prison. 

Marks pleaded guilty to robbery, criminal gang activity and carrying a handgun without a license and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Kelly was the only one who went to trial. She was convicted on charges of felony murder, assisting a criminal, robbery, and abuse of a corpse. Originally sentenced to 75 years, the prison term was trimmed to 65 years after the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled she could not be convicted of both felony murder and assisting a criminal.

But that’s as far as her case got in the appellate court. Kelly’s attempts to have the conviction overturned were unsuccessful, and the Indiana Supreme Court has declined to take her case.

Friday afternoon’s hearing on a petition for post-conviction relief is pretty much the last option available to get out of prison early.

According to court documents, Kelly is attacking her court-appointed public defender, P. Stephan Miller, as ineffective. In court documents and during testimony Friday, Kelly’s lawyer Mike Moore argued Miller didn’t present Kelly with the option of plea agreements, nor did he allow her to testify in her own defense.

Taking the stand, Miller told Surbeck he did not specifically remember what plea agreements were offered but remembered Kelly wanted the same 25-year agreement offered to Johnston, and that wasn’t going to happen.

"She was adamant," Miller said. "She did not want to plead."

He said Kelly never told him she wanted to testify in her own defense but said he discouraged it anyway.

"I believe Ms. Kelly would not have come across as a credible person," Miller said. "(It would have) erased any chance she had."

Moore tried to call a juror to the stand, to testify that he had wanted to acquit Kelly and wanted to hear her testify.

But Allen County Deputy Prosecutor David McClamrock objected, and Surbeck agreed, that it was not legal for a juror to disclose what happened during deliberations.

As the juror walked back to his seat with Kelly’s family, Kelly turned to him and mouthed a "thank you." The juror nodded. After the hearing, he tried to walk toward her but was stopped by deputies. He then stood outside the courtroom, talking with Kelly’s family.

The hearing was continued until January, when it is expected Kelly will testify. A pretrial conference was scheduled for December.

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