INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday seemed poised to reduce the sentence of a drunk driver who killed a former Noble County coach in 2019.
But the question is how to get there.
The five justices heard arguments in the case of Ryan Gravit, who pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident during or after committing operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing death. Gravit was driving a U-Haul truck when he hit and killed Chuck Schlemmer, who was on a bicycle.
He was sentenced to 16 years for the Level 3 felony. He also pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death, a Level 4 felony and lesser-included offense, and being a habitual offender.
But Noble County Judge Michael Kramer didn't vacate the lower-level offense – instead giving Gravit another 12 years on that charge as well as 20 years for being a habitual offender.
His total sentence was 48 years but his attorney, Greg Fumarolo, argued it should only be 36 years.
Gravit sought the lower drunk driving charge be vacated – as Indiana Supreme Court precedent calls for – via a direct appeal to the Indiana Court of Appeals. But the appellate court found Gravit forfeited his double jeopardy challenge.
“It is well-settled that a conviction based on a guilty plea may not be challenged by direct appeal,” the ruling said.
Fumarolo said Gravit should still be allowed to directly appeal a sentence when a judge doesn't follow the law correctly.
“It sure looks like you are entitled to a 12-year sentence reduction,” said Justice Mark Massa. “The question is where do you get it?”
Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush also acknowledged a clear double jeopardy violation and Deputy Attorney General Tyler Banks even conceded the judge erred in sentencing on both drunk driving convictions.
But Banks said the defendant should use the post-conviction relief process, which has different rules and procedures than a direct appeal. He said the state could agree to a sentence modification but that would not vacate the conviction.
The court has to find a way to address Gravit's case without opening up all guilty plea cases to direct appeal challenges.
Justice Christopher Goff said he is concerned about the impact of an error like this on the long-term confidence in the system.