In our line of work, car accidents are probably the most common type of case we see. Even as everyday citizens we see car accidents daily in the news. Sometimes people are fine, others people are hurt, and sometimes people are killed. But in what has to be a completely unprecedented week in Indianapolis, two individuals have been charged with murder for what are alleged to be murders where a vehicle is the weapon.
On June 1, 2021, 29-year-old Kayla Bowling, was riding her bicycle on the south side of Indianapolis when she was struck by a vehicle. Bowling was able to get the license plate number and relay it to a witness before the driver sped off. Unfortunately, Bowling succumbed to her injuries, but her quick thinking may have helped police arrest a suspect. Using the license plate number, police arrested 27-year-old Kyle Rigdon in connection with the hit-and-run.
As it would turn out, Rigdon was Bowling’s ex-boyfriend. Family members of Bowling allege that Rigdon had been stalking Bowling in the days leading up to the hit-and-run, going as far as slashing her tires.
Just a few days later in the early hours of June 3, 2021 police were called to Indy’s north side for a reported pedestrian accident in the parking lot of Tilly’s Pub. Customers at the pub allege that a woman, 26-year-old Gaylyn Morris, entered the bar and told them she had used an Apple Air Tags to track a man, 26-year-old Andre Smith, to the bar where she found him on a date. Morris allegedly grabbed an empty beer bottle and swung it before being asked to leave the bar. Once outside, Morris allegedly clipped Smith with her car, backed over him, and then drove over him a third time, entrapping him. He subsequently died of asphyxiation. Morris stayed at the scene where she was arrested.
Both cases seem pretty straight forward—two young adults murdered by current or former partners. But both cases present significant legal and policy questions.
State v. Morris
The most significant legal questions that comes to mind when thinking of the Morris case is whether a claim could be made that she didn’t intend to kill Smith and whether she has a “heat of the moment” defense.
Intent is a tough sell considering all of the witnesses and what they said she did, but it’s important to realize that murder in Indiana does not require the death to be intentional. Murder has two different mens rea (or states of mind) that may be used to support a charge. A person may be charged if they knowingly or intentionally kill another person.
Even if she could successfully argue that she didn’t specifically intend to kill Smith, it would be much harder to make the claim that a reasonable person wouldn’t know that running over a person multiple times with a car could result in their death. Of note locally, the Richmond Hills Explosion defendants were charged with “knowing” murder vs “intentional” murder because there was no evidence that they intended to kill their neighbors. The State was able to overcome this because a reasonable person should/would know that blowing up a home in a subdivision would likely cause significant damage, or even death, to nearby neighbors.
It’s also possible that Morris may make admit to the killing of Smith, but claim it was a product of “sudden heat” and seek to be found guilty of the lesser included offense of Voluntary Manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is still a significant Level 2 felony, but the penalty range is approximately half of that of a murder conviction.
According to Larkin v. State, “Sudden heat” occurs when a defendant is provoked by anger, rage, resentment, or terror, to a degree sufficient to obscure the reason of an ordinary person, prevent deliberation and premeditation, and render the defendant incapable of cool reflection.
Were Morris’s actions sudden heat? That’s for a jury to decide. According to the probable cause affidavit, Morris certainly appeared provoked by anger & rage and was not reasoning as an ordinary person would. It should be noted however that it is alleged that Morris used Apple AirTags to track Smith’s whereabouts that night to confront him for cheating on her.
Assuming that is true, there was clearly deliberation and premeditation in terms of the confrontation, but does that mean that she had already planned to hit him with her car? As happens often with the law, the answers are rarely clear cut and easy and will often have to be decided by a jury’s decision.
State v. Rigdon
Bowling using her last moments to relay the license plate number to a witness poses a question most law school students dread: Is it hearsay? Is there an exception? Hearsay is an out-of-court statement being used as evidence of the statements truth in a court proceeding. In this case, Bowling gave the vital information regarding the suspect’s plate number before succumbing to her injuries—unfortunately she is no longer here to testify first-hand about what she saw. If the case were to go to court the defense may object that the information police received regarding the license plate number was hearsay.
Many spectators of the Johnny Depp—Amber Heard trial got a lesson in hearsay when Depp took the stand and began anticipating hearsay objections during his examination by Heard’s attorney. Though Depp picked up on when to make a hearsay objection, he likely isn’t aware of the 23 exceptions law students and lawyers alike spend hours memorizing. In Bowling’s case one exception sticks out—dying declarations. Indiana’s Rule 804(b)(2) permits an exception for a dying declaration: “A statement that the declarant, while believing the declarant’s death to be imminent, made about its cause or circumstances.”
Dying isn’t necessarily enough to use the dying declaration exception to hearsay. For the dying declaration exception to apply the victim must have known death was imminent. In one Indiana case, Anderson v. State, a woman was stabbed and her purse was stolen. The woman told witnesses that two men had stabbed her before stealing her purse, but would be okay and did not need an ambulance. She eventually succumbed to her injuries. The defense in the case made a hearsay objection to the evidence of about the two men and Indiana’s Supreme Court concluded her statements did not meet the dying declaration exception because she did not believe she was going to die from her injuries.
While the defense might try to raise a hearsay exception, prosecutors will likely be able to get the evidence of the plate number in under the dying declaration exception.
It’s also possible that even if her statement were excluded as hearsay and not allowed at trial, it would not necessarily have the effect of erasing the rest of the police investigation, including what was found because of her statement, and the prosecutors may still be able to make their case regardless.
Possibly the most interesting legal issue regarding Bowling’s death is how scary it is that this was close to being the “perfect” crime. According to the probable cause affidavit, Rigdon made many mistakes as far as trying to get away with this. Specifically, he is alleged to have made vague social media threats, told someone that he had hurt his girlfriend, and asked people to provide an alibi for him.
If there hadn’t been witnesses for Bowling to relay license plate information to, it’s possible he never would have been found at all. Worse yet, if Rigdon had not created so many bread crumbs suggesting this was an intentional act, it’s possible that this case would have been charged as a hit and run crime as opposed to a murder. Why is that significant? Because the penalty range for murder is 45-65 years. The penalty range for a hit and run resulting in death is 2-12 years. Conceivably, a person could intentionally murder someone and only face a handful of years in prison.
Though these cases pose interesting legal questions, the harsh reality is that in just one week two assumed traffic collisions in Indianapolis were actually murders. Two families must deal with the loss of a loved one to domestic violence.
Intimate partner abuse is growing in Central Indiana—a report by the Domestic Violence Network found that domestic violence related called to IMPD grew from 18,000 in 2019 to 30,000 in 2020. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.