IU student Hannah Wilson’s killer appeals conviction

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Indianapolis Star on 05/01/2017 by Madeline Buckley

A man convicted of beating to death an Indiana University student in 2015 is asking for a new trial, arguing that the judge should not have allowed prosecutors to speculate about the murder weapon.

A jury in August convicted Daniel Messel, 52, of murder and being an habitual offender in the April 24, 2015, death of 22-year-old senior Hannah Wilson. In September, Brown Circuit Judge Judith Stewart sentenced Messel to 80 years in prison.

Now, Messel is asking the Indiana Court of Appeals to vacate his convictions due to what he characterized as unfairly speculative testimony at his trial. He also argues that his sentence should be reduced because the judge did not consider mitigating factors, such as his health problems and childhood in a broken home.

A passerby found Wilson’s body in remote field in rural Brown County after a night out with friends during the university’s Little 500 celebrations, a weekend known for parties. The young woman’s body was bruised and bloody, and Messel’s cell phone was found at her feet.

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The autopsy showed that Wilson died from blows to the head with a blunt object such as a baseball bat or pipe. Investigators never found the murder weapon.

But during trial, a friend of Messel’s testified that Messel told him he owned a Maglite flashlight, a heavy, industrial flashlight, and used it for defense purposes. The friend, though, had never seen the flashlight, and police did not find one in Messel’s car when it was searched.

“The only clear purpose in the state’s introduction of the Maglite testimony was to invite the jury to speculate that Messel actually had one,” Messel’s appeal brief reads, “that it was of a size that could produce the damage suffered by Wilson, and that [Messel] was a dangerous armed man.”

The brief argues that the testimony unduly prejudiced the jury against Messel.

Among other evidence presented at trial: Investigators found Wilson’s hair and blood in Messel’s car. Surveillance video also showed a car that appeared to be his in the area near Wilson’s Bloomington home. She disappeared shortly after taking a cab home from a local bar.

Messel also asks the appeals court for a new sentence. He argues his 60-year murder sentence is “inappropriate in light of the nature of the offense and the character of the offender.”

In Indiana, a murder conviction carries a punishment of 45 to 65 years, and a judge must weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances to decide whether a sentence should be in the low or high end of the range.

In the brief, Messel argues that the judge did not consider his poor health due to cancer treatment, as well as factors from his childhood.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office has not yet filed a response.

Messel is also accused of sexually assaulting an Indiana University student in another case filed in October. A 22-year-old Indiana University law student came forward to police after hearing testimony during Messel’s trial that she felt was similar to her sexual assault.

The woman reported that in September of 2012, she found herself in a car with a strange man, but did not remember how she got into it, court documents say. She said the man took her to a wooded area in Monroe County, pulled her out of the car by her hair and sexually assaulted her. At the time, she underwent a sexual assault examination, and samples were collected for potential DNA comparison.

There were no matches, until she told police she believed her attacker was Messel after hearing about the trial testimony. Investigators compared the DNA samples, which showed that Messel was a match, a probable cause affidavit says.

The case remains pending.