The Chief Prosecutor in Elkhart, Indiana, Is Accused of Misconduct for Making Contradictory Allegations

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by Ken Armstrong

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Series: Accused in Elkhart:Justice in an Indiana County

Indiana’s first man to be pardoned based on innocence was tried in Elkhart County. But that troubling case doesn’t stand alone. In a county known for cranking out RVs, there’s a deeper story about how justice is carried out by police, prosecutors and judges.

A new motion has accused the elected prosecutor in Elkhart, Indiana, of misconduct, alleging she presented contradictory versions of the truth against two men in connection with a shooting that occurred more than 20 years ago.

The case stems from the drive-by shooting death of a woman on Aug. 13, 2003. Prosecutors have always maintained the shooter was Ignacio Bahena. But as to who gave Bahena the gun, the prosecution offered two different versions, pinning the act on one man, then pinning it on another, according to a motion filed by one of the men’s lawyers. Both men went to prison, and one of them is still serving time for the crime and challenging his 55-year sentence.

The Elkhart case is another in a line of instances across the country in which prosecutors have been accused of presenting contradictory accounts in court, depending on the defendant they’re trying. At least 29 men have been sentenced to death in the U.S. since the 1970s in cases where prosecutors were accused of presenting opposing versions of the truth, according to a search of legal cases.

ProPublica wrote in February about a case in Baltimore in which federal prosecutors offered opposing versions of the truth while securing a conviction on a gun charge against a man named Keyon Paylor. Two days after that story was published, the Department of Justice reversed course and agreed Paylor’s conviction should be thrown out, writing, in a court filing, that “public confidence cannot sustain irreconcilable versions of one event.”

The motion in Elkhart focuses on the actions of the county’s top prosecutor and asks that her office be disqualified from handling the case further. The motion marks another challenge to the workings of Elkhart’s criminal justice system, which has been the subject of a joint investigation by ProPublica and the South Bend Tribune. The two news organizations, as part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, have reported extensively on Elkhart’s system of law enforcement, chronicling wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct, and dubious investigative tactics and criminal wrongdoing by police.

The Elkhart case traces to the shooting death of 20-year-old Karla Castro, who was killed when Bahena shot at and wounded her boyfriend, according to court records. Bahena fired from an SUV that pulled up next to a Ford Mustang driven by Castro’s boyfriend, according to court testimony.

Bahena has never been caught. But prosecutors did charge two men who were in the SUV with him.

One of the two men, Eduardo Brena, appeared in Elkhart Circuit Court in June 2004 and pleaded guilty to a felony charge for providing the gun to Bahena on the day Castro was killed. During the plea hearing, the judge walked Brena through the charge’s factual basis, making sure Brena understood and admitted each element.

“Did you provide a handgun to him?” the judge asked Brena.

“Yes,” Brena told the judge.

The judge later asked, “Mr. Brena, did these acts occur on Aug. 13, 2003, in Elkhart County, Indiana?”

“Yes, sir,” Brena told the judge.

Representing the state at this hearing was Vicki Becker, who was then Elkhart County’s chief deputy prosecuting attorney. Asked if she wanted the court to accept Brena’s guilty plea, Becker told the judge, “Yes, I do, your Honor,” according to a court transcript.

The following month, in July 2004, Becker represented the state at Brena’s sentencing. She said Brena “recklessly provided that handgun” to Bahena and “enabled” the shooting to happen. The judge sentenced Brena to six years on the gun charge.

The second man charged in this case, Rodolfo Alexander, stood trial in March 2005, accused of being an accomplice to Castro’s murder. Alexander had been driving the SUV at the time of the shooting, prosecution witnesses told the jury.

The prosecutor at Alexander’s trial was Becker, the same prosecutor who had been in court for Brena’s guilty plea.

She called Brena as a witness, and Brena, on the stand, contradicted what he had said in court the year before.

He testified that he gave the gun not to Bahena on the day of the shooting, but to Alexander a couple of days before the shooting. Alexander thereafter passed the gun along to Bahena, the eventual shooter.

“And so was it OK with you” that Alexander gave the gun to Bahena? Becker asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Brena said.

By putting Brena on the stand at Alexander’s trial — and having Brena provide an account that contradicted what he had said at his own plea hearing — Becker committed misconduct by knowingly presenting false testimony, the recent motion from Alexander’s lawyers says.

Alexander was convicted of murder, as an accomplice, and sentenced to 55 years. Prosecutors maintained that in addition to supplying the weapon, Alexander positioned the SUV in a way that helped Bahena open fire on the other car. Alexander’s initial appeal was denied in November 2005; his subsequent appeals have dragged on for years.

Becker, the prosecutor in both the Brena and Alexander cases, won election in 2016 to be the county’s top prosecutor. She has held the position ever since.

When contacted by ProPublica, Becker declined to comment on the allegation from Alexander’s attorneys that she committed misconduct. “As this is an actively pending matter, I am not able to engage in an interview of any kind regarding the case, nor may a representative of the State. All information should come from observing the public proceedings at this time. Thank you for reaching out,” Becker wrote in an email.

One of Alexander’s lawyers, Kevin Murphy, with Notre Dame Law School’s Exoneration Justice Clinic, also declined to comment. (Christian Sheckler, a former South Bend Tribune reporter who worked with ProPublica on stories published in 2018 and 2019 about Elkhart’s criminal justice system, became an investigator for the clinic in 2022.) ProPublica could not locate Brena to seek comment.

In March, Alexander’s lawyers filed a motion asking that a special prosecutor be appointed to the case and that Becker and her office be disqualified. The lawyers expect Becker to be a central witness in an upcoming appellate hearing, so she has a conflict of interest, the motion says.

As of Thursday, Becker’s office had not yet filed a response to the motion and its allegations, according to court records.

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