After 18 years, Andrew Royer is exonerated from his Elkhart wrongful conviction

Author: Staff

Bj 9

With an intellectual disability, Andrew Royer falsely confessed to a crime he did not commit.

After an Indiana court vacated his conviction in 2020, the State’s Motion to Dismiss the criminal case has been granted and Mr. Royer’s exoneration is official.

Mr. Royer is the first person to be exonerated by Notre Dame Law School’s newly formed Exoneration Justice Clinic.

Now that the Motion to Dismiss filed by the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office has been granted, Andrew Royer has officially been exonerated of a 2002 murder in Elkhart, Indiana. He is the fifth person to be exonerated from Elkhart.

“The law students and lawyers in the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic have worked tirelessly to correct a gross miscarriage of justice and set an innocent man free,” said Professor Jimmy Gurulé, one of Mr. Royer’s attorneys at the Exoneration Justice Clinic and a professor at Notre Dame Law School. “While this story has a happy ending — Mr. Royer has been reunited with his family — there is no way to adequately compensate Mr. Royer for spending 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Moreover, the actual killer remains at large. Tragically, the criminal justice system in Elkhart failed Andy and its citizens in every respect.”

Mr. Royer, 43, with no prior criminal record, was wrongfully convicted of a 2002 murder in Elkhart, Indiana. Mr. Royer had nothing to do with the crime, but police took advantage of his intellectual disability to coerce his false confession over the course of a two-day interrogation. Mr. Royer’s wrongful conviction was the product of gross police and prosecutorial misconduct in Elkhart.

Lana Canen, Mr. Royer’s co-defendant, was exonerated in 2012 after a latent print found at the crime scene was proven not to be hers. At the joint 2004 trial, an Elkhart Sheriff’s Deputy falsely testified that a latent print matched Ms. Canen. Since then, Ms. Canen’s conviction has been reversed and the case dismissed because the latent print actually excluded her. Nevertheless, Mr. Royer languished in prison for several more years.

Egregious police misconduct was exposed during a four-day evidentiary hearing in the fall of 2019. On March 31, 2020, Kosciusko County Judge Joe Sutton issued a 55-page opinion granting Mr. Royer a new trial. In this opinion, Judge Sutton found that the State repeatedly withheld exculpatory evidence, fabricated false evidence, and that Elkhart Police Department Detective Carl Conway coerced a third-party witness into providing false testimony. The trial court’s opinion likewise focused on the two-day, mostly unrecorded interrogation, that led to Mr. Royer’s false confession. Having considered more than 11-hours of testimony from Detective Conway, the court concluded that: “the statements obtained from Mr. Royer are unreliable ... [and] involuntary. Given the newly discovered evidence discussed infra, Mr. Royer’s unreliable statements would not result in a conviction upon retrial.”  Opinion at ¶117.  On April 2, 2020, Judge Sutton released Mr. Royer from prison on his own recognizance after 17 years of wrongful incarceration.

Notre Dame Law students enrolled in the Wrongful Conviction Externship, the predecessor to the Exoneration Justice Clinic, participated in the post-conviction hearing, examining several key witnesses in the case.

Despite Judge Sutton’s ruling, the State continued to resist Mr. Royer’s quest for justice by appealing his order granting a new trial. On February 10, 2021, oral arguments were held before the Indiana Court of Appeals. Less than two months later, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Royer’s grant of a new trial and found that the State repeatedly violated Mr. Royer’s constitutional rights by withholding exculpatory evidence at trial.  State v. Royer, 166 N.E.3d 380 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021).  In a strongly-worded opinion, the Indiana Court of Appeals also determined that Detective Conway committed perjury during Mr. Royer’s 2004 criminal trial, holding that “Detective Conway withheld the truth when he attempted to bolster the reliability of Royer’s confessions by saying Royer knew details about the murder which were not known to the public. Thus, we hold that Royer was entitled to post-conviction relief due to Detective Conway's misrepresentation to the jury that he did not feed information about the crime to Royer and the State's reliance on Detective Conway's denial during its closing argument to implicate Royer.”  State v. Royer, 166 N.E.3d 380, 404 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021).

“Andy’s wrongful conviction is a travesty of justice. But it did not occur in isolation. Andy is the fifth Elkhart exoneree, a startling statistic for a community of this size. Andy’s case demonstrates a pattern of police misconduct in the halls of the Elkhart Police Department,” said Elliot Slosar, one of Mr. Royer’s attorneys at the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic. “While the Indiana Court of Appeals found Detective Conway’s false testimony at Andy’s trial to be ‘galling,’ the same is true of his continued employment at the Elkhart Police Department. If the City of Elkhart is truly committed to repairing the police department’s reputation for violating citizens’ constitutional rights, it has an opportunity to send a clear message to the community by holding Lt. Conway accountable.”

Given the seriousness of Detective Conway’s perjured testimony, and its central role in wrongfully convicting an innocent man, the Indiana Court of Appeals expressed serious concerns regarding his misconduct and contribution to the erosion of public trust in law-enforcement:

Detective Conway's false testimony at Royer's trial is particularly galling because he was an Elkhart Police Department detective at the time of Royer's trial and, as of the evidentiary hearing on Royer's successive petition for post-conviction relief, Detective Conway was still employed by the Elkhart Police Department overseeing the juvenile bureau and the special victim’s unit. As we have explained, when law enforcement officers lie under oath, they ignore their publicly funded training, betray their oath of office, and signal to the public at large that perjury is something not to be taken seriously. This type of conduct diminishes the public trust in law enforcement and is beneath the standard of conduct to be expected of any law enforcement officer.

State v. Royer, 166 N.E.3d 380, 404 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021) (emphasis added).

Six days later, now-Lieutenant Conway was placed on Administrative Leave by the Elkhart Police Department.  See 4/26/21 Police Merit Commission Minutes.  To this day, the City of Elkhart has not publicly disclosed the substance of the internal affairs investigation conducted against Lt. Conway, or whether they are seeking his termination as a result of his perjured testimony in this case.   

Mr. Royer’s exoneration is a product of a collaborative effort between innocence clinics at two different law schools, including: the Notre Dame Exoneration Justice Clinic and Indiana University McKinney Law Clinic, and the Chicago-based Exoneration Project.

“The IU McKinney Wrongful Conviction Clinic is jubilant that Andy Royer is fully free. The students and I celebrate this victory with our colleagues at Notre Dame’s Exoneration Justice Clinic, proud of the teamwork that accomplished the righting of a terrible wrong,” said Frances Watson, one of Mr. Royer’s lawyers at the IU McKinney Wrongful Conviction Clinic.

A copy of the Judge Sutton’s opinion is available here, and the Court of Appeals opinion is available here.