The Continued Evolution of the Insanity Defense in Indiana: A Look at the Most Recent Court Decisions

Whenever the insanity defense is asserted in Indiana, the Court will appoint mental health experts to complete an evaluation of the Defendant.  The ultimate purpose of these evaluations is to determine whether the Defendant could appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions at the time the crime was committed.  If the Defendant was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions at the time the crime was committed, the conclusion is that the defendant was insane.  The logical verdict at trial, if the defendant was insane at the time of the crime, is not guilty by reason of insanity.

Cases That Shaped the Interpretation of the Insanity Defense in Indiana

Although this seems like a simple concept, the trial and appellate courts have long been at odds on this issue.  To illustrate, there are two cases that have recently shaped the interpretation of the insanity defense in Indiana.  Both cases seem very similar at first glance, but the Indiana Supreme Court ultimately arrived at two very different conclusions.

Barcroft v. State of Indiana

This was decided by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2018.  In 2012, Lori Barcroft killed a Pastor under the belief that the Pastor was responsible for killing her father.  During an interview with detectives, it was clear that Barcroft suffered from severe delusions.  It is important to note, however, that Barcroft had planned the killing ahead of time and had taken steps to conceal the crime after it was committed.  The killing occurred late at night, with Barcroft dressed in all black.  Barcroft ran from the scene after the killing and hid in bushes from the first responding officers.

In Barcroft, three court appointed experts testified that Barcroft was insane at the time of the crime.  Previous to this killing, Barcroft had received intermittent mental health care and had only been diagnosed with ADHD.  But during the mental health evaluations prior to trial, two of the experts diagnosed Barcroft with schizophrenia.  The third expert diagnosed Barcroft with delusional disorder.  Each of the experts, therefore, diagnosed Barcroft with a mental illness and testified that she was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of the crime at the time it was committed.  The logical conclusion, then, should be that Barcroft was found not guilty by reason of insanity, right?  Not so fast.

The trial court rejected the insanity defense and convicted Barcroft as being guilty but mentally ill.  The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, citing that the trial court was free to reject the expert testimony and could rely on other evidence to infer Barcroft’s sanity.  The trial court found, and the Indiana Supreme Court agreed, that because Barcroft had planned the killing and took several steps to evade police, that she could appreciate the wrongfulness of her actions.  The Supreme Court further reasoned that Barcroft’s lack of a well documented history of mental illness also supported the trial court’s rejection of the insanity defense, despite the experts’ unanimous conclusion that she was insane at the time of the crime.

Payne v. State of Indiana

In 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court decided Payne v. State of Indiana.  In 2016, Payne was convicted of several counts of arson for burning multiple covered bridges in Parke County.  In committing the crimes, Payne acted late at night, gave the police a deceptive explanation for incriminating evidence that they uncovered, and attempted to establish an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the crimes.

Three mental health experts evaluated Payne before trial and unanimously concluded that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder.  Similar to Barcroft, all three experts concluded that Payne was unable to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the crime.  Unlike the situation in Barcroft, Payne had a documented history of acute mental illness and had spent most of his life under psychiatric care for chronic paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder.  Nevertheless, the trial court rejected the insanity defense and found Payne guilty but mentally ill.

This time, the Indiana Supreme Court REVERSED the trial court’s finding, and found Payne not guilty by reason of insanity.  The Supreme Court held that absent a conflict in expert opinion, Payne’s long and well documented history of mental illness clearly supported a finding of insanity.  The Court further explained that Payne’s history of mental illness, coupled with the unanimous conclusion of the mental health experts, diminished any evidentiary value of Payne’s attempts to plan and cover up his crime.

To sum up, there have been two different cases decided by the Indiana Supreme Court, two years apart, with the insanity defense as the core issue.  In both cases, all three mental health experts diagnosed the Defendants with mental illnesses and concluded that the Defendants could not appreciate the wrongfulness of their crimes.  In both cases, the Defendants took steps to plan the crimes and then tried to conceal the crimes after the crimes were committed.

In Barcroft, the Indiana Supreme Court reasoned that it was appropriate for the trial court to find the Defendant guilty but mentally ill due to a lack of a history of documented mental illness, and because she planned and tried to cover up the crime.   The Court stood by this analysis even though all three mental health experts determined Barcroft to be insane at the time of the crime.  In Payne, the Court reasoned that it was inappropriate for the trial court to find the Defendant guilty but mentally ill because the experts agreed that Payne was insane and did have a long, documented history of mental illness.  The Supreme Court determined that Payne should be not guilty by reason of insanity even though Payne had planned and tried to cover up the crimes.

Need Legal Assistance? Contact Banks & Brower

Clearly, the insanity defense will be a topic that is contentious and aggressively litigated in courtrooms throughout the state.  If you believe that the insanity defense is relevant to your case, contact the experienced Indianapolis criminal defense attorneys at Banks and Brower anytime at (317) 870-0019.