The death penalty is rare. Could the Southport police shooting be different?

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The Indianapolis Star on 10/3/2017 by Ryan Martin

As Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry stood at a podium Thursday to announce his office’s pursuit of the death penalty against Jason Dane Brown, he read four names.

David Moore. Rod Bradway. Perry Renn.

And now Aaron Allan.

All four were police officers who have been killed during Curry’s seven years as the county prosecutor.

At Thursday’s press conference Curry said he was sending a message in seeking the death penalty: Attacks against police officers will not be tolerated.

Recent history suggests that the death penalty case could result in a plea agreement. That is what happened in the two other police shootings in which the suspects were arrested.

During a press conference Thursday, Marion County ProsecutorDuring a press conference Thursday, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry announces his office will seek the death penalty against Jason Brown, who is accused of killing Southport Police Lt. Aaron Allan in July. Southport Police Chief Tom Vaughn also spoke during the press conference. (Photo: Ryan Martin/IndyStar)

Thomas Hardy, who pleaded guilty to Moore’s 2011 murder, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Major Davis, who pleaded guilty to killing Renn in a 2014 gun battle, received the same sentence.

In the Bradway shooting, the suspect was killed.

Curry said the Moore and Renn cases shouldn’t portend what could happen in the case against Brown.

“In any given case, we do not know what path it will take,” Curry said Thursday.

Moore’s family wanted resolution, he said, leading to the agreement with Hardy.

As for Davis, Curry said there were “significant mental health issues” that complicated the prospect of the death penalty.

Lt. Allan’s widow’s words: ‘There is no room in my heart for anger’: Southport officer’s widow issues statement

Related: Officers killed in the line of duty

To request the death penalty with murder charges in Indiana, prosecutors must prove certain aggravating circumstances. One such circumstance is if the victim is a police officer killed in the line of duty.

What could complicate seeking the death penalty against Brown is the apparent lack of motive, said Jack Crawford, an Indianapolis defense attorney and former Lake County prosecutor who has been involved in several death penalty cases.

Investigators are likely scouring Brown’s social media and interviewing family and friends, Crawford said, to learn why he would kill someone who was trying to help him.

Allan, a Southport police lieutenant, was responding to a car crash when, authorities say, Brown opened fire while still in the overturned vehicle. Baggies of marijuana were found in the vehicle, but Curry said Thursday a motive remains unclear.

“The prosecutor does not have to prove a motive. Still, juries want to know what the defendant’s motive was,” Crawford said. “In this case, that’s pretty obscure.”

He also noted how death penalty cases can cost $1 million to $2 million, with the county picking up half.

Costs can grow, Crawford said, if the judge approves Brown’s request for a change of venue to another county. Increased lodging and transportation costs could add to the bill.

Southport Police Lt. Aaron AllanSouthport Police Lt. Aaron Allan (Photo: Provided by IMPD)

That is why death penalty cases in general are rare. Crawford knew of six that were pending in Indiana.

Prior to Thursday’s filing against Brown, the most recent case came out of Boone County. On Sept. 20, Boone County Prosecutor Todd Meyer said his office would seek the death penalty against a teenager accused of fatally stabbing a 73-year-old Lebanon man.

Prosecutors have leveraged the death penalty to push for plea bargains in the past, Crawford said. Two other recent Marion County cases resulted in such agreements.

Johanthan Cruz, 20, avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to three killings from 2016.  He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without parole.

And Kenneth “Cody” Rackemann, who avoided the death penalty by agreeing to a plea deal, received four consecutive life sentences for the murder of four people in 2014.

The prosecution’s case against Brown could turn out differently because of the public’s support for officers who are protecting their communities, Crawford said.

“You can build a very strong emotional case that this kind of life-taking deserves the maximum penalty,” Crawford said.

Benjamin Ritchie is on Indiana's death row.Benjamin Ritchie is on Indiana’s death row. (Photo: Provided by Indiana Department of Correction)

Proof can be found on Indiana’s death row.

One of the 12 people on death row, according to the most recent Indiana Department of Correction information, is Benjamin Ritchie, who killed Beech Grove Police Officer William Toney during a 2000 police chase.

In October 2002, he was sentenced to death. Crawford represented Ritchie.

“In some cases, the death sentence is handed out by the judge and the jury,” Crawford said. “It can happen.”