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COA affirms jury's rejection of insanity defense

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has sided with a jury in rejecting a man’s insanity plea, holding that even when crimes seem horrific and senseless, that does not mean the perpetrator is legally insane.

In James Fernbach v. State of Indiana, No. 69A01-1103-CR-151, James Fernbach claimed the jury erred when it found him mentally ill but guilty of two counts of Class A felony attempted murder. He contended that he should have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and that his 60-year sentence was inappropriate.

The appeals court wrote that Fernbach had a long history of mental illness and a violent past. He had been institutionalized as a teenager, and as a young man, he was arrested several times for acts of domestic violence – such as threatening his girlfriend, with whom he fathered a child, with an axe and attempting to strangle her.

In 2008, Fernbach’s family removed firearms from the household after he fired a shotgun into the woods, claiming that he was shooting at intruders. He also put nails in the home’s gutters, to prevent people from getting onto the roof.

Fernbach’s family attempted to get help for his paranoid behavior, taking him to two different emergency rooms, where he was treated for anxiety and released. His family had him involuntary committed to a hospital, and he was released after 72 hours.

In April 2009, Fernbach – armed with an illegally purchased handgun – shot two people, without provocation, at a gas station. He shot Philip Cruser in the head, leaving him with severe disabilities, and attempted to shoot another man – Benjamin Dick – in the head. Dick was able to grab Fernbach's arm, deflecting the shot, but a bullet went through his hand. Fernbach was attempting to reload his gun when Dick urged him to flee the scene and not shoot him again.

Fernbach sped off, and when he arrived at home, he told his wife he thought he killed someone by accident. But Fernbach initially told police he didn’t remember much about the shootings, and then later told police that he was defending himself against Dick, who he alleged had attacked him.

At trial, two doctors provided testimony about Fernbach’s psychiatric health that could have been favorable to the defense, but, the appeals court held, neither doctor spoke with anyone other than Fernbach, and one doctor admitted that a defendant’s statements alone are among the least reliable sources for a psychiatric examination.

The appeals court wrote that the defendant bears the burden of establishing the insanity defense by a preponderance of the evidence. Citing Indiana Criminal Code 35-41-3-6(a), the appeals court held that in order to meet this burden, the defendant must establish both that he suffers from a mental illness, and that his mental illness rendered him unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct at the time of the offense.

Although Fernbach did call the police, when questioned by the police, he asked one of the officers whether he could receive the death penalty for his crimes, indicating knowledge that his actions were criminal. His ensuing suicide attempt in jail could also be construed as indicating knowledge of the wrongfulness of his conduct, the court held.

The court also held that while Fernbach’s crimes seem to be without motive, motive is not an element in the crime of attempted murder. “In fact, our supreme court has upheld the rejection of an insanity defense in cases where the crimes appear to have been completely irrational,” the court wrote. The appeals court held that the jury did not err in finding Fernbach guilty, but mentally ill.

The appeals court held that due to the nature of Fernbach’s crimes – attacking two strangers and leaving them with lifelong disabilities – his 60-year sentence was not inappropriate.
 

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