GOSHEN — A judge will decide by the end of the year whether to allow certain evidence that led to the arrest of a suspect in a Goshen College professor’s 2011 murder.
Winston Corbett, 24, was arrested one year ago and charged with murder and attempted murder.
He’s accused of killing James Miller and injuring his wife, Linda Miller, at their home on Oct. 9, 2011.
Court documents surrounding Corbett’s arrest have been sealed, at the request of Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker.
But more recent filings related to the motion to suppress evidence make references to information contained in them.
Those include Linda Miller’s description of the home invader as a white man in his late teens or early 20s, with a “clean cut” and a “baby face.” She also described his height, build and hair.
Police also found two blood stains, one in the driveway and one in the house, that contained DNA that didn’t match the Millers. In October 2018, detectives received an “investigative tip” that prompted them to look into Corbett.
They found that his appearance was similar to the description Linda Miller gave and that he lived within a mile of the Millers’ house at the time of the attack. Police obtained his trash from the collection company and sent samples to the Indiana State Police lab, which determined the DNA from the samples was consistent with the unknown DNA profile found in the blood stains.
Presented with that information, a court magistrate allowed detectives to get a swab of the inside of Corbett’s mouth to check his DNA against the other samples.
‘The tip of the iceberg’
Corbett’s lawyer argued during a court hearing Monday that the affidavit authorities used to get a sample of his DNA wasn’t based on sufficient probable cause. Attorney Peter Britton said the affidavit didn’t give any information on the “investigative lead” that police received, so its credibility couldn’t be determined.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he told Circuit Court Judge Michael Christofeno.
Britton also questioned a detective’s visit to Corbett’s house, saying there was nothing to suggest any criminal acts were associated with the residence and that the visit constituted an unlawful search. He said the trash pull that followed was a violation of Corbett’s constitutional rights and that the affidavit didn’t establish the qualifications of the forensic scientist who examined the samples.
He also pointed out that Linda Miller’s description of the suspect matched a lot of college of high school students in Goshen, and remarked that, using the same logic, every trash can in the city could have been pulled.
“On first blush this looks good,” Britton said of the affidavit. “But this is not how we operate under the law.”
Becker responded by saying that Britton appeared to be trying to whittle away every part of the affidavit, knowing that, in totality, it shows probable cause for a search warrant.
She remarked that there’s little expectation of privacy when it comes to trash and that legal precedent puts a very low burden on law enforcement to justify a trash pull. She indicated that Corbett’s appearance being similar to the suspect description and his living near the Millers was reasonable suspicion enough, and that trash pulls have been approved for less.
She also said the detective’s visit to Corbett’s home, which was to knock on the door and ask if he lived there, broke no rules according to higher court decisions.
“It’s no different from any peddler, hawker, Girl Scout or trick-or-treater,” she said. “Knock-and-talk is fine.”
Becker noted as well that legal standards don’t require affidavits to exhaustively document everything.
Christofeno later observed that there are different standards for establishing the qualifications of someone like a forensic examiner in an affidavit vs. during a trial.
Christofeno gave Britton and Becker 30 days to file followup memos. He said he would issue a ruling by Dec. 31.
Corbett’s jury trial is currently set for Jan. 6.