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Divided justices uphold guilty but mentally ill verdict in Southport pastor’s murder

December 4, 2018

A bench verdict of guilty but mentally ill against a woman twice convicted — and twice cleared by reason of insanity – in the 2012 shooting of a Southport pastor will stand after a majority of the Indiana Supreme Court found sufficient demeanor evidence to reject the woman’s insanity defense. But the two-justice dissent pointed to testimony from three experts to support their opinion that Lori Barcroft was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct at the time of Jaman Iseminger’s murder. 

Justice Mark Massa began the 3-2 majority opinion affirming Barcroft’s conviction in Lori Barcroft v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-135, by noting she had a “great” childhood and was never formally diagnosed with any psychiatric disorder other than attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Despite that, Massa said Barcroft’s “cognitive faculties continued to wane” after her divorce in the early 2000s, and by 2007, she was exhibiting “increasingly odd behavior.”

Specifically, Barcroft’s son, Jordan Asbury, said his mother, who lived with him and his wife, claimed to see messages on the refrigerator, was obsessed with the color of cars and would ramble in nonsensical codes. Those oddities culminated in early 2012 when Asbury — acting on the advice of Iseminger, the family pastor — told his mother that she could no longer live with him.

A few months later, in May 2012, 29-year-old Iseminger and Jeff Harris, a church volunteer, were working at the church early in the morning when Harris saw Barcroft dressed in black and carrying a backpack. After asking Harris where Iseminger was, Barcroft opened fire and fatally shot the pastor before fleeing and hiding among some weeds.

Once found, Barcroft surrendered without incident and told police that she killed Iseminger because he was a member of the Mexican mafia who planned to “pick off” her family members “one by one.” She also told officers she did not plan on getting caught.

Barcroft was subsequently charged with murder and proceeded to a bench trial, where three mental health experts testified that she was legally insane at the time of the shooting. But the Marion Superior Court found Barcroft guilty but mentally ill, noting that despite her “complex delusions,” demeanor evidence showed she understood the wrongfulness of her conduct. The trial court also noted Barcroft had a motive to kill Iseminger: his advice to Asbury to ask her to leave her son’s house.

The Indiana Court of Appeals initially overturned Barcroft’s conviction in 2015, then again in December 2017, finding last year that the demeanor evidence relied upon by the trial court was “of no probative value due to Barcroft’s lengthy history of a mental illness.” Barcroft’s counsel advanced a similar argument before the Indiana Supreme Court in April, relying on Galloway v. State, 938 N.E.2d 699 (Ind. 2010), while the state urged the high court to affirm the guilty but mentally ill verdict by relying upon Myers v. State, 27 N.E.3d 1069 (Ind. 2015).

In upholding Barcroft’s conviction, the majority joined by Justice Steven David and Chief Justice Loretta Rush agreed there was “ample demeanor evidence” from before, during and after the shooting to support the rejection of the insanity defense. Massa specifically pointed to the fact that Barcroft purchased a handgun, prepared a goodbye letter for her family, spared Harris’ life despite his presence at the shooting and “(took) great pains to conceal herself under the foliage of an overgrown lot,” among several other examples of demeanor evidence.

Further, Massa said the three experts who opined that Barcroft was insane disagreed on the reason for her insanity, splitting on whether she should be diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoid type, or delusional disorder, persecutory type. And even without those and other inconsistencies, the majority noted Barcroft’s doctors had never formally diagnosed her with an acute mental illness.

“In sum, we hold that evidence of Barcroft’s demeanor — taken together with the flaws in the expert opinion testimony and the absence of a well-documented history of mental illness — was sufficient to support an inference of sanity,” Massa wrote for the majority. “Although some evidence could had lead to a contrary finding, we cannot say that the ‘evidence is without conflict and leads only to the conclusion that the defendant was insane when the crime was committed.’”

But in a dissenting opinion, Justice Christopher Goff, joined by Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, reached the opposite conclusion. Writing that the majority’s holding deviates from the analysis of expert testimony and demeanor evidence laid out in Galloway — for which David was in the majority — Goff said the demeanor evidence “is wholly consistent with the experts’ unanimous conclusions that Barcroft was legally insane when she shot and killed Pastor Iseminger.”

Specifically, Goff said Barcroft underwent both outpatient and in-patient treatment in the late 1990s, 2000s and early 2010s and had “reported a history of depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol abuse in her father.” Further, the dissenting justices said the demeanor evidence relied upon by the majority “is neutral at best because it points just as fairly to insanity as it does to sanity for this particular defendant.”

“While judges and juries sit as the final authorities on a defendant’s sanity, our Galloway opinion instructs that their authority cannot, and should not, go unchecked,” Goff wrote. “In my view, the majority loosens Galloway’s limitations on demeanor evidence and thereby erodes Indiana’s insanity defense. I respectfully dissent.”

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