Mental Illness in Indiana Criminal Courts

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Mental Illness in Indiana Criminal Courts

For nearly two centuries, the concept of the “insanity defense” has been debated and changed in Indiana’s Appellate Courts.  Central to the debate is the recognition that, when a mental illness renders a person incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, the law excuses their would be criminal conduct.  Left with answering the question whether a particular individual in any criminal case meets that criteria is the “trier of fact” or the jury or trial judge.  But what exactly are they looking for and does any evidence carry more emphasis over others?

What Must You Prove?

As a general rule, the State of Indiana must prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt to convict a defendant.  However, an individual may avoid criminal responsibility by invoking the insanity defense.  Such a defense places an affirmative burden (meaning the defendant has the responsibility) to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence (a lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt) that: 1) They suffer from a mental disease or defect (or a severe abnormal mental condition that grossly and demonstrably impairs their perception) and 2) that the mental disease or defect rendered them unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct at the time of the offense.  Important to note here is that proof of mental illness alone is not enough.

This defense is extremely important since an individual may ultimately be found: 1) Guilty (as any other criminal defendant), 2) Not Guilty (as any other criminal defendant) OR 3) Guilty but Mentally Ill (requiring an evaluation and treatment of mental illness during period of incarceration, however they are imposed the same criminal sentence as a standard conviction of guilt) 4) Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (which may result in an individual being ordered to a period of civil commitment if the trial judge finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that the person is mentally ill and either dangerous or gravely disabled).

What Happens When The Insanity Defense is Raised?

So what happens when the insanity defense is first raised?  By law, the trial judge must appoint two or three “competent disinterested psychiatrists, psychologists …, or physicians” who “have expertises in determining insanity” and that these experts then must “examine the defendant and testify at the trial.” IC 35-36-2-2(b&c).  The law is also specific that this testimony only comes in after the State’s and Defense’s cases-in-chief.  This requirement surely means that their expert opinion carries great weight right? The answer: No.

Indiana’s broad jurisprudence (a fancy word for “history”) on the insanity defense has made it clear that the expert testimony is just an opinion, not conclusive in any way, and merely advisory to assist the jury or judge in determining an individual’s sanity.  That means it should be considered in totality with other evidence of probative value in determining whether someone does or does not appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct.  This other probative evidence comes in the form of lay witness testimony and evidence of a person’s demeanor before, during and after the commission of the crime.

What is a Lay Witness Testimony?

Lay witness testimony often comes from an individual’s family member, acquaintance, or another person that has interacted with the defendant.  The focus is not on any specialized knowledge the person has (as compared to expert testimony), but rather their particular experience with a defendant.  This is extremely helpful in identifying a person’s behavior before, during and after a crime, which is often considered more indicative of actual mental health at the time of the crime than mental health exams conducted weeks or months later.

Similar to lay witness testimony, demeanor evidence looks to circumstantial evidence (or the evidence where we have to make a logical and rational inference to get from A to C.  Think: You go to bed and the grass is green.  You wake up and there is snow on the ground.  The logical and rational inference we draw is that it snowed while we slept, despite the fact that we did not actually see it snow) of a person’s actions before, during and after a crime to determine their mental state.  This evidence is extremely helpful since Indiana’s test for insanity is considered “purely cognitive” as we only look to what someone was thinking and whether they could appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct.  As with lay witness testimony, demeanor evidence is useful in identifying a person’s mental health before, during and after a crime.  Certainly, evidence of a person’s demeanor during the crime may have more probative value as to their actual mental health, but it’s best to be clear that Indiana places no temporal limitations on demeanor evidence.  Meaning, evidence of an individual’s behavior before and after a crime is of no lesser or greater value than behavior during a crime.  It’s important to also note that demeanor evidence can have limited value if an individual has a history of mental illness marked by psychosis since it would be difficult to determine what is normal or abnormal behavior for that individual.  But note the “can” since it is simply something for the jury or judge to consider.

So how do we go through the evaluation in determining whether or not a person appreciated the wrongfulness of their conduct?  Well, as detailed above, the answer is purely fact specific and requires the jury or judge to weight the totality of the evidence in reaching their conclusion.  This means that neither of the three will outweigh the others individually or as a whole.  Nor does it mean the answer comes from a form of calculation where a 2 out of 3 majority wins.  This means there can be unanimity amongst the experts and lay testimony that suggest an impaired state of mental health but demeanor evidence that shows an appreciation of the wrongfulness of conduct to support a jury or judge rejection of an individual’s insanity defense.

Because each situation is so fact specific, the insanity defense requires an individual (typically through their counsel) to undergo intense preparation, be extremely detailed and coherent in their argument, and to be able to identify evidence and/or arguments to the contrary of insanity and why they are incorrect or of lesser probative value to the ultimate question: Did this individual appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct?

Contact a Local Attorney

If you or somebody you know has recently been accused of a crime or has questions about the criminal case process, contact the experienced Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys at Banks & Brower, LLC.  We are available at all times by calling us at (317) 870-0019 or by emailing