GOSHEN — Information from an expert witness apparently remains a topic of concern as the calendar bears down on the trial of a Goshen man accused of killing a Goshen College professor nine years ago.
Winston Corbett, 25, remains on track to stand trial beginning Nov. 2, almost two years from the day he was charged with murder and attempted murder. He was arrested in late October 2018 on allegations he, as a 16-year-old, killed James Miller and seriously injured Miller’s wife Linda during a burglary at the couple’s home in October 2011.
The case was initially set to go to trial in March 2019. But the trial since been postponed several times as Corbett’s attorney has worked to prepare a defense. Threading through those delays have been issues, which were raised publicly, like a challenge to DNA evidence investigators recovered, the COVID-19 pandemic which halted trials locally for about five months, and an ongoing effort to secure an expert witness’ findings.
A hearing in Elkhart County Circuit Court is scheduled for Sept. 24 to discuss the status of an expected and apparently long-awaited report, from the defense expert.
During a hearing Sept. 10, Corbett’s attorney, Peter Britton, told the court the expert has only had data relevant to his case for about three weeks. He indicated the data had been omitted from evidence disclosures provided by the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office from about late 2019 into June.
Prosecutor Vicki Becker voiced concern during the Sept. 10 hearing that with the trial less than two months away, time was becoming tight for Britton to review his expert’s report and then share it with her office to review as part of trial preparation. Britton said he believed he could have the report available a few days from before that discussion.
That hearing, as a so-called status conference, was one of several to be held in the case this year, with about five held since June to keep the judge updated on the case’s progress. Such hearings were set as Britton has requested and received four trial postponements since late February 2019, according to court information. Each time, the trial was pushed back by four to six months. The most recent delay was due largely to the health emergency from COVID-19.
At the beginning of September, Becker said waiting two years to take a case to trial is not normal. She indicated, giving a rough, anecdotal estimation, this case may be taking about twice as long as an average murder case to prepare.
“The shortest I have ever seen is about six months. But generally, between 10 months and a year is pretty standard,” Becker said.
Britton did not respond to requests for an interview.
A review of local murder cases shows those that went to trial since early 2018 usually began approximately a year after charges were filed. Some got underway after about seven months of preparation. Others took about a year-and-a-half to begin, according to court information.
A couple of pending murder cases are currently on track to start about a year-and-a-half after they were filed in mid-2019. A third case, filed in August 2019, is scheduled to go to a bench trial beginning Sept. 21.
As part of the preparation for Corbett’s trial, Britton sought to suppress DNA evidence with a filing in June 2019, arguing it was collected unconstitutionally by investigators. The trial was rescheduled from that August to this January while both sides went toe-to-toe on the evidence challenge. Judge Michael Christofeno, with a ruling at the end of December, denied Britton’s suppression motion.
A few weeks before the decision was issued, the trial was pushed back again by another six months to July 6 as Britton requested more time to prepare his case and secure expert witnesses. During the Dec. 5 hearing, as he allowed the lengthy delay, Christofeno warned he likely wouldn’t grant any more postponements. Britton seemed to anticipate such a response then.
“I mentioned an act of God to my client,” he said at the December hearing to indicate he understood almost nothing could shake the July trial date.
And then 2020 came.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to closures, quarantines and the state’s stay-at-home order as the first cases of the illness appeared in Indiana in late March. Local courts and those statewide cleared trial calendars in response, fueled in part by concern about seating juries while maintaining social distancing guidelines.
The suspensions pushed trials set for the spring and summer back by several months. Trials didn’t resume until around mid-August as new health and safety procedures were put in place for jury selections and jury seatings.
Christofeno in late April rescheduled the Corbett trial to Nov. 2 in part to give the court cushion time to work out logistical issues with resuming trials before bringing the high-profile case before a jury.
Becker voiced confidence the Nov. 2 date will remain fixed in place.
“I think it’s going to go. I am preparing this as if it’s actually going,” she said.
Documents in the case, including the probable cause affidavit which spells out why Corbett is charged with murder, have been sealed since the case was filed in 2018.