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Michael Yates

Other Indiana Exonerations
On the evening of April 4, 2008, two armed men entered an apartment in Kokomo, Indiana. Four people – two men and two women – were inside. One of the men, Keith Taylor, jumped out of a window and ran. The robbers left without taking any items, and no one called the police.

Early the next morning, 18-year-old Abby Rethlake was shot to death, and two passengers in her car were wounded. As the Kokomo police investigated Rethlake’s death, they learned about the attempted robbery and believed it was connected to the shootings.

In 2009, a man named Launden Luckett was incarcerated in Illinois, on unrelated charges. It’s not clear from available records when police considered him a suspect in the Rethlake shooting or the attempted robbery, but prison officials assigned him a cellmate who recorded Luckett discussing illegal activities in Kokomo.

Detective Michael Banush with the Kokomo Police Department visited Luckett. After a series of interviews, Luckett agreed to a deal. He would give a statement and – if necessary – testify about the attempted robbery and the Rethlake killing. In exchange, the state agreed to give Luckett immunity for past criminal acts except for shooting one of the passengers in Rethlake’s car.

Luckett told Banush that he and 25-year-old Michael Yates had tried to rob Taylor. Luckett said that several hours after the attempted robbery, he, Yates, and Harris were at a club and ran into Taylor and some of Taylor’s friends. According to Luckett, Taylor had heard that Luckett was involved in the robbery, and he was considering how to exact revenge.

After Taylor and his friends, including Rethlake, left the club, Luckett, Yates, and Jesse Harris followed in a separate car. At the time of the shooting, Yates was driving, Luckett said, although it was Luckett and Harris who fired the shots into Rethlake’s car.

Police arrested Luckett, who had been released from prison, and Yates on June 18, 2009, and charged them with attempted robbery. They were both later indicted by a Howard County grand jury on five charges related to Rethlake’s death, including aiding, inducing, or abetting murder.

Luckett testified at the grand jury proceedings, where Howard County Prosecuting Attorney James Fleming outlined the terms of the agreement. In exchange for his testimony against Yates, Luckett would be indicted for the five charges related to the Rethlake shooting, but he would only plead guilty to aggravated battery with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The other charges would be dismissed or not pursued. At Fleming’s request, the court ordered the indictments sealed and that their existence not be disclosed.

Yates’s trial for attempted robbery began on October 30, 2009, in Howard County Superior Court. His attorney was unaware of Luckett’s testimony before the grand jury.

Luckett testified about the planning and execution of the robbery. He said that a man named Sean Landrum had told him that he would be with Taylor at the apartment and would leave the door open. Luckett testified that Yates wore a hoodie and wrapped a white T-shirt around his face during the robbery.

Luckett testified that he would be serving a 15-year prison sentence. He said he would plead guilty to armed robbery but that the charge would be dismissed. It wasn’t clear from his testimony what crime was attached to the prison sentence. Yates’s attorney pushed the state to disclose more details of the agreement, but Fleming said Luckett’s testimony was sufficient. There were other cases, he said, but he didn’t want to get into them.

“I think the prosecutor has a duty to disclose what he’s pleading guilty to for fifteen years without me having to rely upon Mr. Luckett,” Yates’s attorney said. “I think my client has that right, too.”

Fleming continued to demur. He said no written agreement existed between the state and Luckett, and he would not identify the other charges Luckett was facing.

Judge William Menges said the deal could only be discussed in generalities, with the implication that Luckett was getting “much more in return for his testimony.”

He said: “I don’t think the State needs to get into the details and the exact charges that are being dismissed but the fact that he is pleading guilty to other charges and the conviction will result in another, you know, will result from another charge but he’s taking 15 years in connection with a blanket plea involving this case, is I think proper and that’s where you get to.”

Luckett would testify that his 15-year deal was based in part on helping the police with other cases.

Landrum testified that he did not see who entered the apartment. Shanika Smith could not make an identification. Taneka Dunn, the apartment’s tenant, knew Yates and had dated his brother. She testified that it was her “feeling” that Yates was the person accompanying Luckett, based on this person’s eyes and hairstyle. She testified that the person she believed to be Yates wore a wig, and that she thought she saw hair similar to Yates’s coming out from under the wig. (Although Luckett had testified that Yates wore a hoodie and wrapped a white T-shirt around his face, he did not mention a wig until asked by a prosecutor.)

In his testimony, Banush said he threatened to charge Dunn with an obstruction of justice charge when she initially told him that she was unable to make an identification.

Taylor, the intended victim, testified for the defense that Yates was not one of the intruders; rather, the intruders were Luckett and a heavy-set man. Taylor acknowledged writing to Fleming in an attempt to clear Yates of suspicion. Angela O’Bannon testified that Yates was with her at the time of the robbery.

In his closing argument, Fleming said that Luckett was “doing other things, helping the police on other cases and taking 15 years. That happens in this business. It happens all the time. It’s no reason not to believe him.”

Fleming also discounted O’Bannon’s testimony, telling jurors: “I don’t believe her at all. So there’s no real possibility that Yates is innocent in my opinion from this evidence.”

He also said: “Even though this is a black-on-black crime, drug dealer, drug dealer, robbing drug dealers, these things escalate and you’ve heard evidence that things could escalate and [Taylor] was mad, threatened to kill him, kill the people, kill [Landrum]. Pretty soon we’ve got gunfights, pretty soon we’ve got things that are happening all over this country. Chicago and Detroit, people shooting at people. Innocent people getting killed, shot. And that’s why it’s important to me and important to Mr. Banush, [to] find this man guilty.”

The jury convicted Yates of attempted robbery on November 3, 2009, and he received a sentence of 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors unsealed the indictments against Luckett the next day. They declined to pursue the indictments against Luckett for murder, attempted murder, or conspiracy to commit murder. Two unrelated charges were also dismissed. In 2010, Luckett pled guilty to aggravated battery for shooting one of the passengers in Rethlake’s car. He received a 15-year prison sentence, served less than six years, and received money from the Abby Rethlake Reward Fund.

Separately, a jury convicted Yates of aiding, inducing, or causing murder, and the four other charges on August 6, 2010. He received a sentence of 165 years in prison. Harris was convicted separately of the same crimes and received the same sentence.

Yates appealed his armed robbery conviction in October 2010, arguing that Judge Menges sentenced him too harshly and erred when he declined to grant a continuance. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on April 7, 2011.

Although a transcript of the grand jury proceedings was released shortly after Yates’s trial, that information was not included in the appeal.

In 2013, Yates filed a pro se motion for post-conviction relief. The court appointed a public defender to assist Yates, and the motion stalled for several years, until it was amended and re-filed, first on May 5, 2020.

The amended motion said that the state had failed to disclose the extent of Luckett’s cooperation agreement and that Yates’s appellate attorney had been ineffective for failing to raise that claim post-conviction. Luckett had faced up to 241 years in prison if convicted on the additional charges. He testified falsely about his benefits, the motion said, and the state had let that false testimony stand uncorrected.

The amended motion alleged that Yates’s trial attorney had been ineffective. Landrum had given an earlier statement to police where he identified Luckett and Harris as the men who came to the apartment. The attorney never asked him about that inconsistency. In addition, the trial attorney had not objected to Fleming’s inflammatory language and expression of personal opinion in his closing argument.

The state argued that Luckett’s testimony was complete and adequate. At an evidentiary hearing, Banush testified that Fleming told him of the state’s agreement with Luckett.

The trial attorney said he made a mistake in not asking Landrum about his previous statements to police and in not objecting to portions of Fleming’s closing argument.

Judge Menges denied Yates’s petition on November 22, 2021. He said the trial attorney’s performance didn’t justify a new trial and the state had made full disclosure of Luckett’s agreement.

“There is no credible evidence the State of Indiana knowingly used false testimony of Launden Luckett regarding his agreement with the State or allowed any false testimony regarding his agreement with the State to go uncorrected,” he wrote.

Yates appealed. On May 27, 2022, the Indiana Court of Appeals granted Yates a new trial on the armed robbery conviction. The court said Yates’s original appellate attorney had raised the wrong issues. It also said that Yates was denied due process because jurors never learned that Luckett had avoided a prison sentence of approximately 200 years in exchange for his testimony.

“The trial record herein, in conjunction with grand jury testimony (unsealed by the time of Yates’s belated appeal), plainly supports an argument that there was misrepresentation uncorrected by the State,” the court wrote. “Indeed, the prosecutor actively argued against revealing the breadth of Luckett’s incentivization, and the trial court strongly discouraged defense counsel from continued exploration.”

Yates remained in prison on the charges related to Rethlake’s shooting. Judge Matthew Elkin granted a motion by prosecutors to dismiss the attempted robbery charge on January 19, 2023.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/7/2023
Last Updated: 3/7/2023
Most Serious Crime:Attempt, Violent
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2008
Sentence:20 years
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No