Supreme Court hears insanity argument in shooting death of pastor

The May 2012 shooting of the Bethel Community Church pastor left the Southport community shaken. Admitted killer Lori Barcroft was twice found guilty but mentally ill in the shooting death of Jaman Iseminger, but as it stands now, she is not guilty by reason of insanity after a second Indiana Court of Appeals reversal.

The Indiana Supreme Court must decide which outcome will stand after hearing oral argument Tuesday in Lori Barcroft v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-00135. The question: was Barcroft able to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct at the time of Iseminger’s killing, or was she acting based on delusions that hindered her sanity?

According to the Marion Superior Court, the former was true. Pointing to Barcroft’s alleged motive — Iseminger’s advice to her son to ask her to move out of his home — her warning to another parishioner to leave the scene to escape harm, and her admission to officers that she hadn’t planned to get caught, the trial court found demeanor evidence probative of her sanity at the time of the shooting.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals twice reversed the trial court’s verdict in February 2015 and December 2017, finding in its most recent decision that the demeanor evidence was not probative of Barcroft’s sanity.

“The demeanor evidence relied on by the trial court was of no probative value due to Barcroft’s lengthy history of a mental illness, which includes complex delusions, and because the expert witnesses took into consideration the demeanor evidence when they concluded that she could not appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct at the time of the offense,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the majority in December, which ordered the trial court to enter a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. Judge Elaine Brown dissented.

Valerie Boots, Barcroft’s counsel, advanced a similar argument at the Supreme Court on Tuesday. Noting that Barcroft was diagnosed with either schizophrenia, paranoid type, or delusional disorder, persecutory type, Boots pointed the justices to Barcroft’s belief that Iseminger was a member of the Mexican mafia who was out to kill her family. Her delusional reality caused Barcroft to believe killing Iseminger was the only way to stop his alleged plot against her, Boots said, thus proving that she did not understand the wrongfulness of her conduct.

Chief Justice Loretta Rush, however, repeatedly pointed to the demeanor evidence relied upon by the trial court, which also showed that Barcroft fled to a predetermined hiding spot after shooting the pastor. Rush challenged Boots on how that evidence could not be probative of sanity and asked where the line for probative demeanor evidence should be drawn.

In response, Boots based her argument on Galloway v. State, 938 N.E.2d 699 (Ind. 2010), which she said holds that demeanor evidence does not have probative value when considered in the context of complex delusions such as Barcroft’s. But faced with a similar question from Justice Mark Massa, Boots further opined that if someone committed a crime unrelated to their delusion — such as a poor person robbing a bank, but not based on their belief that aliens inhabit the earth — then demeanor evidence could be probative of sanity.

Justice Steven David noted during Tuesday’s oral argument that he was part of the majority decision in Galloway. He also told Boots he was not certain the instant case was “anywhere close to Galloway.”

The state, however, likened Barcroft’s case to Myers v. State, 27 N.E.3d 1069 (Ind. 2015), rather than Galloway. Similar to the holding in Myers, state’s counsel Stephen Creason said here, Barcroft’s crime can be explained by rational reasoning, rather than being an explicit product of her delusions. Barcroft’s defense failed to prove her delusions caused her to act insanely, Creason said, so the appellate courts should defer to the verdict the trial court reached as a result of that defense.

But Justice Christopher Goff noted all three expert witnesses testified that Barcroft was not sane at the time of the shooting — testimony he said seemed to be consistent given Barcroft’s history of mental illness. Creason responded by again pointing to Myers and its holding that “it is unnecessary for circumstantial evidence of sanity to exclude every reasonable hypothesis of insanity or innocence.”

The full oral argument can be viewed here.

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