ANDERSON — After serving 21 years in prison, Trondo Humphrey walked out of the Madison County Jail on Friday to begin a new life after a murder charge was dismissed.
With a big smile on his face, Humphrey, 38, immediately hugged his mother, Ruth Miller, and embraced his uncle, Walter Williams.
On Friday, the Madison County Prosecutor’s office agreed to dismiss a murder charge filed against Humphrey in 1995. He has been confined to a prison or jail cell since 1996.
Humphrey was scheduled to go on trial in Madison Circuit Court Division 3 on Monday.
The Indiana Supreme Court decision ordered a new trial for Humphrey earlier this year, concluding in part that he had poor legal representation.
“I just want to be with my family,” Humphrey said as he walked out of the Madison County jail. “I thought I would walk out soon.”
Humphrey said he might eventually leave Anderson, but right now he wants to spend time with his family.
“I want to catch up on 22 years,” he said. “There is no doubt I’m looking forward to seeing them.”
While in prison, Humphrey became a father and now has two grandchildren.
His mother, overcome with emotion, said it has been a “long time waiting.”
Miller said she left Anderson after her son was convicted on the murder charge in 1996.
“There was not enough room in Anderson for me and these people who convicted my son,” she said.
“I always thought he was innocent,” Miller said. “I felt like he was railroaded. I didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer. The public defender wrote me a letter that he was inexperienced and that he was sorry.”
Miller said the first thing she would do is prepare her son a home-cooked meal, whatever he wants.
“He has a 22-year-old daughter and two grandchildren,” she said. “They’re very excited to see him.”
Miller said she hopes Humphrey doesn’t remain in Anderson and either moves to Indianapolis or to Mississippi with his uncle.
“I just want him to come home,” she said. “I’m ready.”
‘He couldn’t believe it’
Bryan Williams, Humphrey’s attorney, said the trial date was set and the state knew a continuance would not be requested.
“The state had to do something,” he said. “The case rose and fell on the testimony of Roosevelt Brooks, who said he made it up.”
Williams said he expected the charges to be dismissed, adding the past three or four weeks seemed to drag out.
“I can’t image what 21 years seemed like,” he said.
Williams said when he told Humphrey last Sunday he would be released this week, he couldn’t believe it.
“He couldn’t believe it coming down the elevator,” Williams said. “He’s used to 21 years of bad news and expected more bad news.”
Williams said he met Humphrey a few months ago.
“He’s impressive,” he said. “When you first meet him, you would never know he spent a day in prison. He’s well-spoken, respectful and seemed like a good guy.”
Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings said it was impossible to retry the case based on the testimony of one witness whose testimony was impeached at trial.
“All we’re left with is one witness who says he lied to police,” Cummings said. And he was not going to change his testimony.
“It is not possible to sustain that conviction with impeachment evidence.”
Judge Thomas Newman Jr. sentenced Humphrey to a 60-year prison term for the murder of Benjamin Laflin in February 1996.
In a ruling citing numerous problems with how the case was handled at nearly every level, the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this year overturned Humphrey’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
The case was already under review by the high court after it agreed to hear a Court of Appeals ruling that returned Humphrey’s case to Madison County circuit courts because he had ineffective counsel.
The facts of the case are:
Late on April 28, 1995, Stephen Sites and Benjamin Laflin drove from Elwood to Anderson to buy crack cocaine, according to court documents. They saw three people believed to be drug dealers in an alley in the 2300 block of West 14th Street.
Laflin asked one of those men to get into the truck he and Sites were driving.
Laflin and the dealer argued. The dealer drew a gun, which discharged. A bullet struck Laflin in the stomach and he later died.
On the night of the homicide, Donnie Smith of Anderson was drinking and smoking marijuana with another man in a garage, Roosevelt Brooks, according to court documents. Humphrey was allegedly with them.
When a truck entered the alley, Humphrey allegedly was the one who went out to greet the truck’s occupants, according to an unsworn statement Brooks made to police and later recanted during the trial.
That unsworn statement was admitted into the trial and basically served as the key evidence by which Humphrey was convicted, even though Brooks said he made up the story.
Humphrey’s attorney, Patrick Cunningham, did not file an objection to that, nor did he object to jury instructions that incorrectly quoted Indiana law, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Writing for the court, Justice Robert D. Rucker said: “Counsel’s errors, which permitted the jury to consider the only evidence identifying Humphrey as the shooter in determining his guilt or innocence, are sufficient to undermine our confidence in the verdict rendered in the case.
“In viewing the evidence without the inadmissible hearsay statements, we believe there is a reasonable probability the result of Humphrey’s trial would have been different,” Rucker continued, “namely, Humphrey would not have been convicted of murder.”
Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush and Justice Steven H. David both concurred.
In a separate concurring decision, Justice Mark S. Massa wrote this:
“Twenty-two years have passed since Benjamin Laughlin (Laflin) was murdered in 1995, but now the man convicted of (the) killing will get a new trial: an outcome caused by a perfect storm of error by all involved — the trial court, the prosecutor, and the defense — resulting in a collapse of the system.”
Justice Geoffrey G. Slaughter concurred with Massa.