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Indiana Supreme Court to decide on judge in Elkhart wrongful conviction cases

Lauren Chapman/IPB News

Andrew Royer is a name familiar with those who follow public safety in Elkhart. Royer is a man from Goshen with mental disabilities who spent 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Last month, the city of Elkhart agreed to pay Royer nearly $12 million in a settlement for his wrongful conviction.

But this week, a team of lawyers who helped Royer get justice now focus their attention on the Indiana Supreme Court in an effort to exonerate three other people seeking their innocence.

Those defendants are Iris Seabolt, Leon Tyson and Pink Robinson. All three have been convicted of violent crimes in Elkhart in the past two decades but are now filing petitions for post-conviction relief.

Broadly speaking, the trio say that Elkhart police and prosecutors systematically coerced false confessions out of jailhouse informants and hid evidence that was beneficial to their defense cases.

The issue before the state supreme court Thursday is whether Elkhart Judge Teresa Cataldo should remain in charge of the cases.

Lawyers representing Robinson, Seabolt and Tyson say Cataldo is not an impartial arbiter of the case for a couple of reasons. First, they say, Cataldo worked at the prosecutor’s office from 1998-2002 and is friends with Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker. Second, Cataldo was married to an Elkhart police officer and didn’t disclose that, though they divorced over 20 years ago.

And most significantly, the defendants say, is a gag order Cataldo placed one of Royer’s attorneys back in 2018. At that time, a lawyer representing Royer held a press conference announcing they were seeking to have Royer exonerated and that there was “an epidemic” of misconduct by the justice system in Elkhart County.

Cataldo called those comments defamatory, meaning they were false, before she had heard any evidence in Royer’s case. Cataldo eventually recused herself from Royer’s case but Seabolt, Tyson and Robinson say that since they’re now bringing similar allegations of misconduct, Cataldo has opened herself up to showing bias.

“She focused her attention on whether she had previously revealed any bias in the Royer case — which suggests a personal interest — and she let that cloud her judgment,” said Robert Hochman, an attorney for the defendants.

Hochman went on to say the series of cases will include a wide sweep of witnesses who were either deputy prosecutors or police officers in the late 1990s and early 2000s and and that the judge in these cases will have to rule on legal questions, meaning Cataldo would likely be ruling on issues related to former colleagues and acquaintances.

“Every stage of the case, from beginning to end, is going to be infected by this problem," Hochman said.

In response, attorneys for the state said Cataldo in 2018 meant that it was false that Royer’s attorneys had proven the misconduct and not that the misconduct itself was false.

Both attorneys also discussed with the justices what the legal standard of review should be for a new judge to be named. The supreme court will likely rule on the matter in the coming weeks.

Iris Seabolt

Seabolt was convicted of the 2000 murder of A.J. Williams, who owned a restaurant in Elkhart at the time, with the help of two co-defendants. A jury in 2004 said the trio robbed and beat Williams to death in the floor of his restaurant.

Seabolt was released from prison on parole in 2022, but she’s now fighting to clear her name. In her filing for post-conviction relief, she claims that Elkhart detectives coerced and bribed false confessions out of witnesses who testified at her trial in order to deflect attention away from a different female suspect, who one detective was paying for sex during the time.

Leon Tyson

Tyson is convicted of murder after a jury found him guilty of holding two people at gunpoint in an Elkhart apartment and then shooting one after he tried to run away. Tyson’s attorneys now say new evidence points to another suspect, a former friend of Tyson’s, and that Elkhart police never looked into that person despite having evidence connecting him to the crime.

Pink Robinson

Robinson was convicted of armed robbery at a fashion store in Elkhart in 2016 when police say DNA evidence found on a pair of latex gloves at the scene connected him to the crime.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.