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Hearings conclude for man convicted of ‘prom night murders’

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Photo provided.

Hearings concluded Thursday to determine whether Jeff Pelley — the man convicted of the 1989 “prom night murders” — should receive a new trial.

In 2006, Pelley was convicted of killing his father, stepmother and two stepsisters on the night of his prom in 1989. The presumed motive was a disagreement between Pelley and his father about whether Pelley could drive himself to the prom and attend related activities.

Though he won an appeal in 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld Pelley’s conviction in 2009.

But over the last four days, lawyers with the IU School of Law’s Wrongful Exoneration Clinic have argued that Pelley’s original counsel was ineffective.

They interviewed investigators, prosecutors, and defense attorneys involved in the original investigation, as well as family members and outside attorneys, in an attempt to demonstrate that Pelley’s original counsel failed to follow up on evidence that could have changed the outcome of his trial.

The defense’s arguments centered around two pieces of evidence: first, a pair of blue jeans that prosecutors said Pelley had taken off and washed after shooting his family.

Pelley’s lawyers argued there’s no documentation that corroborates testimony that the jeans were found in the washer. A number of coins and a readable receipt were entered with the jeans — items they say would not have survived a washing machine.

Second, the testimony of a woman named Toni Beehler, who came forward after hearing that Pelley had been charged with the murders.

Beehler testified Wednesday that she sold photographic church directories to Pelley’s father, Bob Pelley, who was a pastor at Olive Branch Church in Lakeville.

She said Bob Pelley called her to the church shortly after and confessed that he had “moved money” for the mob when the family lived in Florida, but that he had escaped to Indiana.

According to Beehler, Bob Pelley told her that the mob had found him through the picture in her church directory and were coming to kill him and his family.

Beehler said that she gave her testimony to an officer at the county’s special crimes unit after hearing about Jeff Pelley’s arrest on the news, but was never contacted for follow-up.

Pelley’s lawyers also showed a police videotape of Pelley’s testimony, arguing that his original counsel either never received it or never used it.

Whether Pelley’s team presented enough evidence remains to be seen. St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Steele could take months to decide whether he gets a new trial.

Since Pelley already appealed his case, this is effectively his last chance to be retried and potentially exonerated.

Contact Gemma at gdicarlo@wvpe.org or follow her on Twitter at @gemma_dicarlo.

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Gemma DiCarlo comes to Indiana by way of Athens, Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and certificates in New Media and Sustainability. She has radio experience from her time as associate producer of Athens News Matters, the flagship public affairs program at WUGA-FM.