ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE:
STEVEN KNECHT STEVE CARTER
Vonderheide & Knecht Attorney General of Indiana
GEORGE P. SHERMAN
Deputy Attorney General
COURT OF APPEALS OF INDIANA
CHRISTOPHER SIPPLE, )
vs. ) No. 79A04-0211-CR-572
STATE OF INDIANA, )
APPEAL FROM THE TIPPECANOE SUPERIOR COURT
The Honorable C. Wayne Fountain, Special Judge
Cause No. 79D02-0112-CF-148
May 15, 2003
OPINION FOR PUBLICATION
Christopher Sipple (Sipple) appeals the maximum eight-year sentence he received after pleading guilty
to Involuntary Manslaughter.
See footnote We affirm.
The issue here is whether the trial court properly sentenced Sipple to the
maximum eight years for his crime.
Facts and Procedural History
Shortly after midnight on January 24, 2001, members of the Tippecanoe County Sheriffs
Department arrived at Sipples parents residence in response to a call regarding a
shooting. They found Sipples pregnant twenty-one-year-old wife Christina on the floor near
the doorway between the bedroom and living area of the basement suite in
which the couple lived. Her feet were apparently in the living area,
and her head was in the bedroom. Sipple and his father Wes
were standing by Christina, who had a gunshot wound to her abdomen.
Police officers did not observe any blood around the room other than that
which was coming from Christinas wound. The officers found a loaded shotgun
on the bed inside the bedroom. Paramedics soon arrived, but Christina was
pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
Sipple was taken by police officers to a police vehicle and was questioned
about the incident. After speaking with officers in the vehicle, Sipple was
taken to the police station where he provided additional details about the shooting.
Both conversations were recorded. Sipple stated that he and a friend
began hunting coyotes behind the residence that Sipple and Christina shared with Sipples
parents at some point before 11:00 p.m. The pair hunted for around
twenty minutes, and then returned to the residence. The two men and
their wives played cards in the living area of the basement until around
11:30 p.m., when Sipples hunting partner and his wife left. Sipple and
Christina went to bed. At some point, Sipple walked upstairs from the
basement to use the restroom. The lights in the basement were off,
and the area was dark. Despite the darkness, Sipple noticed as he
came back down the stairs that he had left the 12-guage shotgun used
on the coyote hunt against or near the wall next to the bedroom
door. Sipple stated that he realized he had forgotten to unload the
weapon, so he evidently decided to bring it into the lightless bedroom where
his wife was sleeping to remove the shells from the gun. He
stated that he was carrying the gun with his left hand on or
near the fore-stock pump mechanism, his right hand on the hand-grip area of
the stock near the trigger and the barrel up and across his body
to the left in a port arms position. Sipple was adamant that
his right index finger was not inside the trigger guard. Sipple told
the officers that as he was walking with the loaded shotgun in the
darkness toward the doorway to the bedroom, he tripped over a piece of
furniture and fell to the ground while still holding the weapon. According
to Sipple, his finger was not on the trigger, and the guns safety
was on. Sipple fell on top of the weapon and it discharged
a single shot in the direction of the doorway. Sipple heard a
scream, looked up from the floor, and even though it was too dark
to see the piece of furniture on which he tripped, he was able
to see his wife lying on the ground with a wound to her
abdomen. He then turned on the lights to the bedroom and threw
his gun on the bed. His parents came down the stairs to
the basement and turned on the lights to the living area. Sipple
said that his parents handed him a towel that he used to slow
the bleeding from Christinas wound until the ambulance arrived.
In the early morning hours of January 25, 2001, Dr. Donna Smith performed
an autopsy on Christina. The autopsy indicated that Christina had been struck
by a shotgun blast coming from above her head rather than from below
her waist, as Sipples version of events suggested. The muzzle of the
gun was between three and six feet from Christina at the time of
Police officers returned to Sipples residence after the autopsy to look for any
evidence of splattered blood consistent with the kind of wound Christina sustained.
They found none. The officers also took various measurements of the basement
and of Sipples gun. Taking these measurements, as well as information obtained
during the autopsy regarding the path of the shotgun blast and the distance
between the muzzle of the gun and Christinas body, police officers concluded that
Christina was most likely shot while lying on the ground by someone standing
above her head and behind her.
Police officers spoke with Sipple again during the afternoon of January 25, 2001
to discuss the discrepancies between his story and the pathology evidence. As
before, Sipple stated that he was walking with the gun, but this time
told the officers that his right index finger was inside the trigger guard.
He repeated his claim that he tripped over a piece of furniture
on the way to the bedroom, but now said that the gun went
off as he tripped, and that he fell over after the shot was
fired. He heard his wife say that she couldnt move, so he
turned on the lights in the bedroom and saw his wife on the
ground in the doorway. Sipple did not explain how he was able
to step over his wifes body without tripping over her in the total
darkness to get into the bedroom to turn the lights on.
On January 26, 2001, police officers returned to the residence with a search
warrant, and performed testing to reveal the presence of blood evidence in the
basement. They found evidence of blood on the wall of the bedroom
near where Christinas body was found, as well evidence of blood on a
nearby CD rack. Blood on both areas appeared to have been wiped
off. In addition, the testing indicated that some amount of blood had
been wiped from the carpet before paramedics arrived. Members of the Sipple
family denied cleaning the area.
On January 29, 2001, Sipple gave yet another statement to the police in
which he changed key points of his story. Sipple again said that
he came down the stairs to the pitch-black basement after visiting the restroom
and somehow sensed the presence of his loaded shotgun leaning against the wall.
He picked up the weapon and proceeded toward the equally darkened bedroom
to unload it when he bumped into his wife as she was walking
out through the doorway. According to Sipple, he knocked Christina down.
Sipple generally stated that he was carrying his gun as described above, with
the fore-stock in his left hand, his right hand on the stock near
the trigger, and the barrel generally pointed ahead. This time, however, Sipple
stated that the barrel of the gun was pointed down rather than up.
Sipple claimed that he felt his wife startle as he ran into
her. He did not explain how his body contacted his wife before
the protruding barrel of the shotgun did. After knocking his wife to
the ground, Sipple evidently continued through the doorway in complete darkness, stepping over
but not on his wifes prone body. He then turned around, swinging
the barrel of the downward-pointed shotgun in his wifes direction. Just as
the barrel of the gun was centered on Christinas abdomen, it mysteriously discharged.
Sipple, who never brought loaded guns into his house and who always
used a guns safety trigger lock, did not explain how the weapon fired.
He denied seeing blood on the wall and CD rack, the existence
of which had been revealed in testing done on January 26, and denied
cleaning up any blood.
On November 28, 2001, the State charged Sipple with Reckless Homicide, Criminal Recklessness,
and Involuntary Manslaughter, each as a Class C felony. Sipple eventually pleaded
guilty to Involuntary Manslaughter. During the September 27, 2002 hearing on his
guilty plea, Sipple abandoned the story he had told on January 29, 2002,
reverting instead to a form of the version of events related to police
in his earlier statements. He testified that the shotgun went off after
he tripped on a small piece of furniture on his way into the
bedroom. The State did not object to Sipples testimony, and made no
effort to rescind the plea agreement and charge Sipple with a more serious
crime on the basis of the discrepancies between the evidence and Sipples constantly
He related this version of events during the November 13, 2002 sentencing hearing.
During the hearing, Sipple added that he began to fall to the
ground after tripping over the furniture. Rather than dropping the weapon, which
was pointed off to his left, to catch himself as he fell, however,
Sipple swung the gun around to the darkened doorway in mid-fall and inexplicably
pulled the trigger, shooting his wife.
At the conclusion of the sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed the maximum
eight-year sentence for Sipples Class C felony conviction. In support of the
enhancement, the trial court noted that it had received numerous letters from Christinas
family and friends demanding that Sipple receive the maximum possible sentence for taking
the lives of Christina and her unborn child. The trial court found
the killings psychological impact on Christinas family and friends supported the maximum enhancement.
The trial court also found Sipples lack of remorse over Christinas death,
as discussed by several of the letter writers and by those who testified
during the hearing, warranted enhancement. The court further considered what it saw
as Sipples efforts to conceal the truth about the shooting to be aggravating.
Finally, the trial court found that the maximum enhancement was justified by
the facts and circumstances of the case, which in the view of the
court amounted to a degree of recklessness beyond that normally associated with the
crime for which Sipple was being sentenced. The only mitigator Sipple proffered
was his clean criminal record. The trial court declined, however, to ascribe
much significance to this fact, and determined that it did not outweigh the
Discussion and Decision
A. Standard of Review
Determining the appropriate sentence is within the trial courts discretion, and the trial
court will only be reversed if it has abused that discretion. Bacher
v. State, 722 N.E.2d 799, 801 (Ind. 2000). The trial court has
the discretion to increase or decrease a presumptive sentence upon finding aggravating or
mitigating circumstances. Id. The weighing of those factors is soundly within the
courts discretion. Id.
When the court imposes a sentence other than the presumptive sentence, we examine
the record to determine whether the trial court sufficiently explained its reasons for
selecting the sentence it imposed. Kile v. State, 729 N.E.2d 211, 213
(Ind. Ct. App. 2000). The trial court must identify all significant aggravating
and mitigating circumstances, explain why each circumstance is aggravating or mitigating, and weigh
mitigating circumstances against the aggravating factors. Utley v. State, 699 N.E.2d 723,
730 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998). While a sentencing court must consider all
evidence of mitigating circumstances presented by a defendant, the finding of mitigating circumstances
rests within the sound discretion of the court. Bacher, 722 N.E.2d at
803. The court cannot ignore mitigating factors that are clearly supported by
the record. Widener v. State, 659 N.E.2d 529, 534 (Ind. 1995).
The failure to find a mitigating circumstance clearly supported by the record may
imply that the circumstance in question was overlooked. Id. However, the
trial court need not consider, and we will not remand for reconsideration of,
alleged mitigating factors that are highly disputable in nature, weight, or significance.
Wilkins v. State, 500 N.E.2d 747, 749 (Ind. 1986). Moreover, a sentencing
court need not agree with the defendant as to the weight or value
to be given to proffered mitigating facts. Bacher, 722 N.E.2d at 803.
Indeed, a sentencing court is under no obligation to find mitigating factors
at all. Echols v. State, 722 N.E.2d 805, 808 (Ind. 2000).
Ultimately, a single aggravator may support the enhancement of a sentence, and we
may affirm an enhanced sentence when a trial court has relied in part
upon improper aggravators so long as the trial court relied on other proper
aggravators to enhance the sentence. Hollen v. State, 761 N.E.2d 398, 402
1. Sentence Enhancement
Sipples conviction for Involuntary Manslaughter as a Class C felony came with a
presumptive sentence of four years, to which up to four years could be
added for aggravating circumstances, and as many as two years subtracted for mitigating
circumstances. See Ind. Code § 35-50-2-6(a). The trial court, as noted
above, enhanced Sipples four-year presumptive sentence by the maximum four years. Sipple
contends that his sentence is improper because it was enhanced on the basis
of invalid aggravators and did not account for significant mitigators. Specifically, Sipple
claims that the trial court erroneously identified the wishes of Christinas family and
friends, Sipples efforts to conceal the truth about the shooting, and the nature
and circumstances of the recklessness involved here. Sipple does not challenge the
trial courts use of his lack of remorse as an aggravator. Sipple
also argues that his lack of criminal history and his guilty plea should
have been considered and given weight as mitigators.
(1) Victim Impact
Sipple correctly notes that the loss that accompanies a persons death and its
impact on the persons family and friends is largely encompassed within the range
of impact which the presumptive sentence for Involuntary Manslaughter is designed to punish,
and should therefore generally not be considered a factor favoring the imposition of
an enhanced sentence. See Pickens v. State, 767 N.E.2d 530, 535 (Ind.
2002) (noting that impact of loss of murder victims life is part of
what presumptive sentence for murder punishes). The impact resulting from a persons
death may, however, constitute a proper aggravator when the defendants actions foreseeably caused
a level of devastation not typically associated with the commission of the offense
in question. Id. The trial court found that the impact of
Christinas death on her family was unusually severe because they lost not only
Christina, but also her unborn child. The loss of Christinas unborn child
to her family constituted an impact of a destructive nature not typically associated
with the crime of Involuntary Manslaughter. Given that Sipple was well aware
of his wifes pregnancy, this impact was not unforeseeable. The trial court
was therefore entitled to conclude that the impact on Christinas family was a
factor justifying an enhanced sentence.
(2) Concealment of Truth
Sipple also complains that the trial courts reliance upon what the court viewed
as Sipples efforts to conceal the truth about the shooting was improper.
As Sipple sees it, when the trial court noted that Sipple had changed
his story numerous times, the trial court was engaged in an effort to
compensate for what the court felt was a plea deal too favorable to
Sipple. In light of the fact that the evidence here arguably supported
a murder charge, Sipples concerns are understandable. Indeed, some of those who
wrote to the trial court judge urging the imposition of the maximum sentence
suggested that Sipple intentionally killed his wife after taking up with another woman.
The State did not, however, charge Sipple with murder, and it would
have been entirely improper for the sentencing court here to have enhanced Sipples
sentence out of the belief that Sipple could have been charged or convicted
of a greater crime, or that he was allowed to plead guilty to
a lesser offense than the evidence might have supported. See Cloum v.
State, 779 N.E.2d 84, 92 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002) (instructing trial court upon
remand to refrain from enhancing presumptive sentence for voluntary manslaughter conviction obtained after
guilty plea, when defendant initially charged with murder).
We do not think, however, that the trial courts recognition that Sipples story
had been a work in progress revealed an improper intent to impose extra
punishment. As noted in Cloum, the Indiana Supreme Court concluded in Gambill
that the trial court improperly enhanced a sentence for voluntary manslaughter to compensate
for what the trial court felt should have been a sentence for murder
when the judge explicitly said that he thought that voluntary manslaughter was not
the right verdict and that the evidence justified a murder conviction. 779
N.E.2d at 92 (citing Gambill, 436 N.E.2d at 305). In Cloum, however,
we also noted that our supreme court found in another case that the
trial courts statement attributing the defendants conviction of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder
to the skill of the defendants lawyer in establishing the element of sudden
heat in the face of conflicting evidence was not a statement so resolutely
opposed to the jury verdict as was the case in Gambill, and that
the resulting sentence for voluntary manslaughter in Cloum was therefore not suspect.
Id. at 91 (quoting Wilson v. State, 458 N.E.2d 654, 656 (Ind. 1984)).
In this case, the trial court did not state that Sipple should have
been charged with a greater offense than Involuntary Manslaughter or either of the
other two Class C felonies with which he was charged, or that Sipple
could have been convicted of a greater offense. There is simply nothing
in the record to suggest that the trial court attempted to compensate for
charges not brought or convictions not obtained. The trial court only noted
that Sipples story was inconsistent, and stated that the court found this conduct
troubling. As the State notes, Sipples disinclination to provide an accurate account
of the events leading up to the shooting goes to his character, a
factor the trial court was required to consider during sentencing. See Ind.
Code § 35-38-1-7.1(a)(3)(B). Moreover, a trial court may consider a defendants effort
to interfere in the investigation of a crime by concealing information to be
an aggravating circumstance. See Kingery v. State, 659 N.E.2d 490, 498 (Ind.
1995). The trial court was entitled to conclude that Sipple attempted to
mislead the police in their investigation of the shooting by relating various inconsistent
stories, and to find this circumstance aggravating.
(3) Degree of Recklessness
Sipple next argues that the trial court should not have enhanced his sentence
on the basis of its conclusion that the crime was committed with an
unusually high degree of
recklessness, because recklessness was a material element of Sipples crime.
See footnote A material
element of a crime may not also constitute an aggravating circumstance.
v. State, 707 N.E.2d 797, 804 (Ind. 1999). The trial court may,
however, enhance a sentence on the basis of the particularized circumstances of the
criminal act so long as the court explains why those circumstances warrant the
As noted above, the evidence in this case indicated that Sipple picked up
a loaded shotgun in a completely dark room and, without turning on the
lights, walked through the darkness with his hand on or near the trigger,
the safety evidently off, and the barrel pointed ahead with the intention of
unloading the weapon in the darkened bedroom where his pregnant wife was sleeping.
The court explained its reliance on these facts as follows:
Again, in the sentencing statutes although the charge[d] crime is one of recklessness,
the Court can in certain circumstances look at the facts and circumstances surrounding
the recklessness and I do find the degree of recklessness in this case
to carry a loaded weapon with the safety not on through a dark
room knowing that there are people present in that room is far beyond
the normal amount of recklessness that the court can accept in a case
(Tr. 64.) The trial courts explanation was significantly more than the mere
recitation of the elements of the offense, and adequately supported the finding of
this aggravating circumstance.
(1) Lack of Criminal History
Sipple also argues that the trial court failed to properly consider his clean
criminal record as a mitigator. A trial court must consider a defendants
criminal record during sentencing, Ind. Code § 35-38-1-7.1(a)(3)(C), and may take the defendants
lack of a history of criminal activity into account as a mitigating circumstance.
Id. at § -7.1(c)(6). Here, the trial court recognized that Sipple
had no prior criminal record, but declined to ascribe this fact any mitigating
weight. In a criminal justice system founded on the principles of reformation,
see Ind. Const. art. I, § 18, where reasonably possible, sentencing orders should
distinguish between first offenders and repeat offenders. Bluck v. State, 716 N.E.2d
507, 514 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999). Thus, the absence of a criminal
record is usually a factor entitled to substantial mitigating weight. See Loveless
v. State, 642 N.E.2d 974, 976 (Ind. 1994).
Nevertheless, as noted above, the sentencing court need not agree with the defendant
as to the weight or value to be given to proffered mitigating facts,
Bacher, 722 N.E.2d at 803, and ultimately is not obligated to find mitigating
factors at all, Echols, 722 N.E.2d at 808. A trial court may
properly conclude that a defendants lack of a criminal record is not entitled
to mitigating weight. Jones v. State, 467 N.E.2d 681, 684 (Ind. 1984).
The trial court considered Sipples clean criminal record but declined to find
it mitigating under the circumstances. This determination was within the courts discretion.
(2) Guilty Plea
Sipple additionally contends that the trial court erred by failing to conclude that
his guilty plea was a significant mitigating factor. Sipple did not argue
during sentencing that his guilty plea should be considered, and the trial court
did not specifically mention the plea during the hearing. Nevertheless, as noted
above, the sentencing court may not ignore significant mitigating factors that are clearly
supported by the record, and the courts failure to find a clearly supported
mitigating circumstance may imply that the circumstance in question was overlooked. Widener
v. State, 659 N.E.2d 529, 534 (Ind. 1995). Thus, to support his
allegation that the trial court improperly failed to properly consider his guilty plea,
Sipple was required to establish that the guilty plea was both significant and
clearly supported by the record. Antrim v. State, 745 N.E.2d 246, 248
(Ind. Ct. App. 2001). The plea was not a significant mitigator.
[N]ot every plea of guilty is a significant mitigating circumstance that must be
credited by a trial court. Trueblood v. State, 715 N.E.2d 1242, 1257
(Ind. 1999). But when a guilty plea saves the State the
time and expense inherent in a lengthy trial and accordingly extends a
benefit to the State and the victim's family by avoiding a full-blown trial,
as well as demonstrating the defendant's acceptance of responsibility for a crime, the
plea should be accorded significant mitigating weight. Id. In this case,
while Sipples plea saved the State the expense and time of a trial,
the benefit to the State was moderate at best given the fact that
Sipple had already given several statements to the police in which Sipple admitted
facts that, at a minimum, established his guilt of the crime to which
he pleaded. Indeed, there was nothing in Sipples testimony given during the
hearing on his guilty plea that had not come out in one or
more of his earlier statements to the police. Moreover, in light of
the position Christines family took with regard to Sipples sentencing and their evident
desire to see Sipple prosecuted to the maximum extent possible, the avoidance of
further family trauma does not weigh heavily in favor of the mitigating effect
of Sipples guilty plea. Finally, Sipples story to the police conflicted with
forensic evidence and changed in important respects each time he gave a statement.
The story changed again between the time he agreed to plead guilty
and the date of the hearing on his plea. Sipples plea therefore
hardly indicates his acceptance of responsibility for the crime. In sum, Sipple
failed to establish that his guilty plea was a significant mitigating circumstance, and
we cannot say that the trial court erred by declining to identify it
The trial court found the wishes of Christinas family and friends, Sipples efforts
to conceal the truth about the shooting, the nature and circumstances of the
recklessness involved here, and Sipples lack of remorse as factors favoring the imposition
of an enhanced sentence. The trial courts findings with regard to the
first three factors were not inappropriate, and Sipple does not challenge the courts
use of his lack of remorse to support the enhancement. Moreover, the
trial court did not err by declining to find Sipples guilty plea and
his lack of a criminal record mitigating. The enhancement of Sipples sentence
was accordingly within the trial courts discretion.
2. Sentence Revision
Pursuant to the authority granted by Article Seven, section six of the Indiana
Constitution, Appellate Rule 7(b) provides that a reviewing court may revise a sentence
authorized by statute if, after due consideration of the trial courts decision, the
Court finds that the sentence is inappropriate in light of the nature of
the offense and the character of the offender. In general, the maximum
possible sentences should be reserved for the worst offenders and offenses. See
Buchanan v. State, 767 N.E.2d 967, 974 (Ind. 2002). Sipple contends that
the maximum enhancement of his sentence was inappropriate and should therefore be revised
because he was not the worst offender and did not commit the worst
In Buchanan, our supreme court attempted to clarify the rule regarding the imposition
of maximum sentences as follows:
This is not, however, a guideline to determine whether a worse offender could
be imagined. Despite the nature of any particular offense and offender, it
will always be possible to identify or hypothesize a significantly more despicable scenario.
Although maximum sentences are ordinarily appropriate for the worst offenders, we refer
generally to the class of offenses and offenders that warrant the maximum punishment.
But such class encompasses a considerable variety of offenses and offenders.
767 N.E.2d 974 (emphasis in original). In this case, Sipple pleaded guilty
to and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Our discussion above relating to
the propriety of the trial courts identification of the degree of recklessness with
which Sipple committed this crime leads us to conclude that Sipple was among
the worst involuntary manslaughter offenders and his crime was among the worst within
that class of offenses. Again, Sipple picked up a loaded shotgun in
a completely dark room and, without turning on the lights, walked through the
darkness with his hand on or near the trigger, the safety evidently off,
and the barrel pointed ahead with the intention of unloading the weapon (which
was done by discharging it) in the darkened bedroom where his pregnant wife
was sleeping. In the process, Sipple killed his wife and their unborn
child. Sipple does not suggest how this scenario could have been more
egregious and yet remain involuntary manslaughter and not a more serious offense.
The maximum enhancement of Sipples sentence was not inappropriate.
BROOK, C.J., and NAJAM, J., concur.
nd. Code § 35-42-1-4.
Recklessness was a material element of Involuntary Manslaughter here. Indiana Code
section 35-42-1-4(c) provides that
(c) A person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to
(1) a Class C or Class D felony that inherently poses a risk
of serious bodily injury;
. . .
commits involuntary manslaughter, a Class C felony.
Sipple was charged with Involuntary Manslaughter for killing Christina while committing or attempting
to commit, a Class C Felony, to wit: Reckless Homicide or Criminal Recklessness
Committed by Means of a Deadly Weapon Resulting in Serious Bodily Injury, .
. . . (App. 7.)