COA affirms neglect conviction against man with intellectual disability

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the felony neglect conviction of a Wayne County man with a mild intellectual disability, finding that the state presented sufficient evidence to prove that he knowingly neglected his child leading to the boy’s death, and that the testimony of two medical experts was proper.

In Joseph Lee Pierson v. State of Indiana, 89A05-1306-CR-311, Joseph Pierson and Amy Hockett called the police when their child, K.H., stopped breathing. When officers arrived, the observed that K.H. was very skinny, stiff and pale and that there were soiled diapers strewn throughout the home. Officers later testified that K.H. had died “long before they arrived.”

When police began interviewing the parents, Hockett told officers Pierson had the mental functioning of a 12- to 15-year-old child. After an autopsy was performed, a doctor estimated that K.H. had been extremely malnourished and had reached a level of malnutrition only possibly after 10 to 11 weeks.

The state charged Pierson with murder and neglect of a dependent, a Class A felony, and later added a separate charge of neglect of a dependent as a Class D felony. Pierson filed a notice that he would argue insanity based on his intellectual disability, but an evaluation found that he was competent to stand trial.

At trial, the state presented evidence that another of the couple’s children, D.P., had been previously hospitalized for low weight. Additionally, two experts testified Pierson’s disability would impose limitations on his ability to carry out basic daily activities, and that someone with Pierson’s condition might not even notice his own medical conditions. However, one of the experts, Dr. Parker, also testified Pierson did not meet the definition of “insane” because he did not experience psychosis or hallucinations.

A jury found Pierson not guilty of murder, but instead guilty but mentally ill of reckless homicide, Class A felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death and Class D felony neglect of a dependent. The trial court entered a conviction for the Class A felony charge and sentenced Pierson to 37 years executed.

On appeal, Pierson argued there was insufficient evidence to prove he acted with requisite intent, considering his intellectual disability. Additionally, Pierson argued the Wayne Superior Court committed reversible error by allowing one of the medical experts to testify via video deposition and by allowing Parker to suggest that a person is “insane” only if he suffers from psychosis or hallucinations.

A panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals rejected each of those arguments Tuesday, with Judge John Baker writing in the panel’s opinion that “the jury was presented with extensive information regarding Pierson’s intellectual disability.”

“Some of this evidence suggests that Pierson was capable of understanding the harm that the failure to feed K.H. was inflicting, and other evidence suggests the opposite,” Baker wrote. “Because the evidence conflicts on this matter, our standard of review forbids us from disturbing the determination of the jury.”

Further, Baker wrote that Indiana Trial Rule 32(A) allows courts to use portions of a deposition attended by both parties if each party agrees, as the parties in Pierson’s case did with respect to the video deposition of one of the medical experts.

Finally, regarding Parker’s testimony on the definition of “insane,” the appellate panel found that “when we look at the remarks of both expert witnesses in their full context, we find that the jury was repeatedly informed of the correct legal standard.”

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