In July 2006, jurors convicted Jeffrey Pelley of using a shotgun to kill the four inside their church parsonage home in northern Indiana. The 36-year-old is serving a 160-year prison sentence.
However, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the trial judge should have granted Pelley's motion to dismiss the case because he was not tried within a year of charges being filed.
An Indiana law requires the timeline be followed unless the defense or congested court calendars cause delays. The appeals court in a 2-1 decision ruled that the state's nearly three-year appeal to use Pelley family counseling records as evidence caused the delay, not the defense.
The attorney general's office plans to ask the state Supreme Court to take up the case, a spokeswoman said Tuesday. Pelley will stay in prison pending the appeal, which prosecutors have 30 days to file.
Pelley's attorney, Stacy R. Uliana, said prosecutors had 13 years to gather evidence, but waited until after her client was charged before seeking the counseling records. If the state Supreme Court does not consider the state's appeal, charges against Pelley would be dismissed and there would be no retrial, she said.
She said that Pelley and his family are "beyond happy, ecstatic" at the ruling.
"We feel a great injustice has been done," she said.
Implicit in the decision was that the evidence against her client was weak, Uliana said.
Pelley was found guilty of murdering his father, the Rev. Robert Pelley, 38; stepmother Dawn, 32; and stepsisters Janel, 8, and Jolene, 6, at the parsonage of Olive Branch Church of the United Brethren, about 10 miles south of South Bend. Investigators said Pelley was angry because his father had grounded him for stealing and would allow him to attend only his prom dance, missing other prom activities.
Prosecutors alleged that during a 20-minute span on April 28, 1989, Pelley shot his family members, disposed of the shotgun and shells, took a shower, put his clothes in the washer and left for the LaVille High School prom.
The defense argued there was not enough time for him to have done all that and still make it to the dance. They also said no one could commit such a gruesome attack and still act normal during the prom events, as his friends testified during the trial.
Authorities at the time questioned the 17-year-old high school senior. However, he was not charged until August 2002, when authorities reinterpreted evidence.
After charges were filed, the state subpoenaed the Family and Children's Center seeking all Pelley family counseling records for three years leading up to the murders. The center refused, arguing they were protected information under counselor/client privilege, an argument the state Supreme Court rejected in June 2005.