SOUTH BEND -- A judge has ruled that the conviction should stand for a formerly homeless man accused of bludgeoning to death four men and dumping their bodies into manholes five years ago.
Randy Reeder's attorney, Charles Lahey, argued to Judge John Marnocha in May that Reeder's former public defender had not done enough to defend his client against charges that he conspired with Daniel Sharp, another formerly homeless man whose testimony against Reeder at his 2007 trial was key.
But Reeder insisted in that May hearing -- the first time he spoke publicly about the case -- that not only did he not kill Michael Nolen Jr., Michael Lawson, Brian Talboom and Jason Coates, he was not even living in the same abandoned building where the men were killed.
"I never killed anybody in my life," Reeder said. "I didn't kill any of these guys."
That hearing was part of a process called post-conviction relief. Reeder, now 56, alleged his public defender at the time -- South Bend attorney Brian May -- did not properly represent him or help him prepare for his own defense.
Reeder said May did not contact witnesses who would give him an alibi or contradict Sharp's testimony, and that May advised him incorrectly that he should not testify in his trial.
But Marnocha ruled against Reeder's petition this week.
"The court specifically finds and concludes that Mr. May was not ineffective and that even if all the things which Reeder claims, and complains of, were true that the result of the trial would have been no different," the judge wrote. "The evidence against him at trial was simply overwhelming."
In January 2007, police found the bodies of the four victims in manholes not far from the abandoned industrial building where they had been spending time after winter hit. The case became known as the "Manhole Murders."
Autopsies and witness testimony later determined the men had likely died within a few days during the week before Christmas.
In early February that year, police had questioned Reeder and Sharp, who had also been known to stay in the building.
Reeder, picked up at a trailer park in Niles where he was staying by then, told police he knew nothing of the murders and that Sharp was "harmless."
Sharp initially denied his involvement, despite the discovery of a partial bloody print that matched a boot he was wearing, but he agreed to take a polygraph test. After officers told him he flunked the polygraph, Sharp confessed to the killings.
Sharp said he and Reeder had angrily killed the four men they had been feuding with, the violence finally triggered by the theft of their basement space heater.
Sharp led investigators through the abandoned building called "The Fort," and his description of where and how the men were killed was corroborated by forensic evidence. No physical evidence besides the boot print -- such as bloody clothing or fingerprints on weapons -- was found to directly tie the two men to the killings.
Reeder protested almost immediately after his August 2007 trial, writing a letter to Judge Marnocha about firing May and filing an appeal.
Reeder originally filed with the Indiana Court of Appeals but later asked for post-conviction relief, taking his case to a local judge. The denial of the PCR means Reeder could refile with the appeals court.
Lahey did not return two phone calls today to indicate whether his client will appeal.
In filings dating from 2009 and in the May hearing in Marnocha's courtroom, Lahey outlined Reeder's frustration with May. Lahey called the attorney to the stand to discuss how he worked with his client.
Major issues included not calling witnesses that Reeder contends would provide him an alibi or would discredit Sharp; and providing Reeder with the evidence the state intended to use against him only a couple of weeks before his trial, and some not at all.
But Marnocha noted that on the stand during the PCR hearing, the alibi witnesses were vague about when Reeder was at their Niles home, and the claim that Reeder could not have been in South Bend to commit the murders and hide the bodies was contradicted by several witnesses during the trial.
'An excellent decision'
St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak said today that he and the deputy prosecutor who argued against the PCR, Mark Roule, are pleased with Marnocha's ruling and are confident the appeals court would uphold it.
"Four human beings were killed," Dvorak said. "We spent a lot of time on this case. We had a strong case."
Meanwhile, Darlene Nolen, the mother of Michael "Shan" Nolen, said today that and her daughter, Amy Patterson, are relieved at the ruling -- and that the victims' families will not have to endure another trial at this point.
Although it's Reeder's right to appeal, the Nolens are convinced justice was served with Reeder's conviction, said "Shan" Nolen's father, Michael Nolen Sr.
"The judge made an excellent decision," he said. "And I am proud of the prosecutor's office in seeing this thing through and taking the time to be diligent."
Reeder is in Pendleton Correctional Facility, serving a 260-year sentence. Sharp is serving his 65-year sentence in Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
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