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Michael Hickingbottom

Other Exonerations from Indiana Where No Crime Occurred
On October 13, 2017, 38-year-old Michael Hickingbottom, an inmate at the Miami Correctional Facility in Miami, Indiana, was accused of attacking a prison guard, 51-year-old Larrie Fleenor in the prison chow hall.

Fleenor reported that Hickingbottom, who was serving a 60-year prison term for murder, went up to an inmate who was on crutches, took the inmate’s ID card and walked to an opening between two windows through which most food trays were served. While inmates were required to get food trays through the windows, inmates who were in wheelchairs or on crutches were allowed to get their trays by going into this opening.

Hickingbottom handed the other inmate’s card to Fleenor so that he could get a tray. At that moment, another guard came up and told Fleenor that the inmate on crutches had reported he did not intend to eat his meal. The prison regulations mandate that an inmate only can get one meal and Fleenor decided that Hickingbottom was trying to obtain an extra meal, so he confiscated the other inmate’s ID card.

Fleenor told Hickingbottom he could only get his own tray.

Hickingbottom repeatedly asked Fleenor why he took the other inmate’s card. Fleenor said he told Hickingbottom three times to step back and that he would give it back at the end of the meal.

Fleenor said Hickingbottom became angry and reached into Fleenor’s pocket to retrieve the ID. Officer Fleenor became angry and “smacked” Hickingbottom’s hand away. The men then began swearing at each other and Fleenor, who was white, called Hickingbottom, who was black, “boy.”

According to Fleenor, Hickingbottom then stepped within five inches of Fleenor’s face. When Fleenor shoved him away, Hickingbottom punched Fleenor six or eight times. Other guards separated them. Fleenor required stitches to repair a split lip, his nose and ears were bleeding, and he had abrasions to his head and arms.

On October 25, 2017, Lorna Harbaugh, Department of Corrections officer in charge of investigations at the facility, interviewed Hickingbottom about the incident after he waived his Miranda rights. Hickingbottom said he was helping another inmate who was on crutches and was unable to obtain his own tray. Hickingbottom said that when he went to the gap between the windows to get the inmate’s food, Fleenor snatched both the inmate’s ID and Hickingbottom’s ID, and put them in his pocket. Id. Hickingbottom said he pointed to Fleenor’s pocket, said his ID was there, too, and that he was only trying to help someone with crutches.

Hickingbottom said he and Fleenor exchanged words, Fleenor called him “boy,” and pushed him. Hickingbottom said he reacted in self-defense.

Hickingbottom was charged with battery resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer. He chose to represent himself. At a pretrial conference, during a discussion about prospective witnesses, the prosecution said that a prison official, Charles Williams, would testify about the policies and procedures at the prison and the training that guards received.

Hickingbottom said he wanted access to the department’s “rulebook” for officers to determine if the training tactics were correct. The prosecution said it was unsure if such a manual existed, but that it was attempting to acquire information on the use of force, the force continuum, and any related standard operating procedures or training related to what was at issue in the case if such information existed.

On January 28, 2018, the day before trial was to begin in Miami County Superior Court, the prosecution said it was not able to obtain any manual because prison officials said that an actual manual given to the guards that explained procedures did not exist. As a result, the prosecution said it would not be offering into evidence any manual.

Hickingbottom claimed he knew there was such a manual and objected to Williams’s testimony regarding training procedures without access to the rules because it would hinder his cross-examination. The trial court ruled that the prosecution would not be allowed to admit any written manual into evidence at trial and that Hickingbottom would be able to cross-examine Williams regarding the training of guards.

At trial, Williams—who was the prison training coordinator—testified regarding the training that DOC officers received on when the use of force is appropriate. He discussed how the guards were trained to de-escalate a situation, and about the force continuum that outlines the various methods available to attempt to resolve situations without resorting to a physical altercation. Williams told the jury that this continuum contained ten steps that progressed from mere presence of guards to various kinds of physical force.

During cross-examination, Hickingbottom asked Williams: “Are there or is there a rulebook on how you should train other officers?”

Williams replied, “Can you define what you mean by rulebook?”

“A rulebook explaining the techniques or what’s to be done during a tragic situation,” Hickingbottom said.

“Our training is governed by departmental policies and procedures,” Williams said. “The division of staff training issues approved lesson plans that we use to train with.”

“Does the rulebook also explain how officers should conduct themselves?” Hickingbottom asked.

“Yes,” Williams said. “There is information there about being—acting in a professional manner.”

When Williams left the witness stand, Hickingbottom moved for a mistrial, arguing that he had not received the manual explaining the conduct that DOC officers should engage in when dealing with inmates, particularly when faced with a situation similar to what happened to him. He again argued that he knew the manual existed because he had seen it before, and that although prison officials had told the prosecution that a manual did not exist, Williams had testified that it in fact did.

Hickingbottom asserted that, without the manual, he was not able to properly cross-examine Williams as to whether Fleenor had acted improperly on the date of the altercation. He claimed that he was, therefore, unable to adequately prepare a defense and was being denied a fair trial. The trial court denied Hickingbottom’s motion for mistrial.

The next day, Williams resumed testifying and this time he said that no officer manual existed–only training materials. Harbaugh, the investigating officer, also testified that guards do not have rule books or other manuals.

When Fleenor testified, he compared guards to daycare workers or babysitters and that the guards give the inmates recess, three meals, bedtime when they must be quiet, and timeout when they misbehave. He denied instigating the fight or attacking Hickingbottom.

On February 2, 2018, the jury convicted Hickingbottom. He was sentenced to six years in prison to be served consecutively to his 60-year term for the murder conviction.

On appeal, Hickingbottom claimed that the prosecution later conceded such a manual existed, but that the prison refused to disclose it. Based on the failure of the prosecution to produce this manual, Hickingbottom claimed his ability to prepare a proper defense was unfairly compromised, and he was deprived of a fair trial.

On April 8, 2019, the Court of Appeals of Indiana agreed and reversed Hickingbottom’s conviction. The appeals court said that it could see that a manual detailing the use of force by guards was specifically referenced—and partially included—on the Department of Corrections website.

“Therefore, at all pertinent times, the manual existed and was available on the (Department of Corrections) website, even though certain polices were omitted,” the appeals court said.

“Hickingbottom, in requesting the manual, expected it to show what the proper policies and procedures were for (guards) when using force and to establish that Officer Fleenor acted outside what was the proper use of force under the policies and, therefore, acted unlawfully,” the court said. “Hickingbottom’s self- defense claim was based on an assertion that such unlawful actions by Officer Fleenor justified Hickingbottom’s use of reasonable force against Officer Fleenor.”

The court added that “the jury was not given the most important piece of evidence regarding Hickingbottom’s self-defense claim.”

“Thus, the State’s failure to produce the manual was so prejudicial that Hickingbottom was placed in a position of grave peril to which he should not have been subjected,” the court ruled. On July 3, 2019, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/1/2019
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2017
Sentence:6 years
Age at the date of reported crime:38
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No