3-2 Supreme Court reverses, finds covered bridge arsonist insane

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A man who confessed to burning down two Indiana covered bridges has had his guilty but mentally ill verdict reversed by a divided Indiana Supreme Court. The 3-2 majority cited unanimous expert opinion that the defendant is legally insane in overturning a jury’s conclusion.

In 2005, Jesse Payne was charged with two counts of arson after he was accused of burning down two historic Parke County covered bridges, as well as attempted arson of a third bridge. Those charges were supplemented with a habitual-offender enhancement, and a trial court later found Payne incompetent to stand trial until 2016.

At his jury trial two years later, Payne asserted the insanity defense and three court-appointed mental-health experts unanimously concluded that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder that left him unable to distinguish right from wrong.

Despite the expert unanimity, a jury rejected the insanity defense and found Payne guilty but mentally ill on all counts, sentencing him to an aggregate 90 years in the Department of Correction. A panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the demeanor evidence of Payne’s deliberate, premeditated conduct was sufficient to support the jury’s conclusion that he was legally sane at the time of the crimes.

But justices of the Indiana Supreme Court split on the issue, with the majority finding that the guilty but mentally ill finding conflicted with the holding in Barcroft v. State, 111 N.E.3d 997, 1002 (Ind. 2018),

effectively creating an “impossible standard of review.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Christopher Goff first noted that absent conflict in expert opinion, Payne’s long and well-documented history of mental illness clearly supports a finding of insanity and that the unanimous expert opinion laid a solid foundation for establishing Payne’s insanity.

“And the lack of ‘flaws’ or ‘inconsistencies’ in this expert opinion lends strong support to this conclusion,” Goff wrote, joined by Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Steven David.

Next, the majority found that Payne’s well-documented history of mental illness deprives any relevant demeanor evidence of its probative value.

“Unlike Barcroft’s sparse medical record, Payne’s long history of mental illness is consistent and thoroughly documented. Payne first received mental-health treatment at the age of thirteen, inaugurating what would become a lifetime of involuntary commitments and psychiatric hospitalizations. Diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia in 2000, Payne has since been treated with a veritable cocktail of antipsychotic medications, including Risperdal, Prolixin, and Haldol. Mental-health evaluations over the ensuing decade regularly affirmed his schizophrenia diagnosis, reporting on a consistent pattern of hallucinations and delusional episodes. Doctors have also diagnosed Payne with polysubstance abuse and anti-social personality disorder, further evidence of amplified mental illness,” Goff wrote for the majority.

The majority additionally noted that the record revealed no deviation from those findings over the following decades. It therefore reversed the guilty but mentally ill conviction, finding Payne not guilty by reason of insanity. On remand, the majority instructed the trial court to hold a hearing on the state’s petition for Payne’s commitment to “an appropriate facility” or “therapy program.”

However, Justice Mark Massa dissented in a separate opinion, joined by Justice Geoffrey Slaughter in Jesse L. Payne v. State of Indiana, 20S-CR-313.

“In the end, the Court discounts the evidence of Payne’s demeanor, elevates the documentation of his mental illness, reweighs the conflicting evidence, and supplants the factfinder’s determination. I fear the Court’s opinion, by flouting our standard of review, quiets the immutable trust we place in factfinders and permits appellate courts to inconsistently establish rejected insanity defenses,” Massa wrote. “Yes, our appellate review must mean something. But that oversight must uniformly flow from the proper standard of review. Because today’s opinion does not, I respectfully dissent.”

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