COA rejects covered bridge arsonist’s insanity defense

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A man who set two Indiana covered bridges ablaze and almost burned down a third lost his insanity defense appeal after the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded he was legally sane at the time of the crimes.

As Jesse Payne was about to set fire to a covered bridge in Parke County, he was met by police who asked him to take a polygraph test as to why he was in the area and had gasoline on hand. They found his reasons suspicious, which was confirmed when the test concluded Payne’s statements were false and that he exhibited a “strong likelihood of deception” and “untruthfulness.”

Payne, who was on parole at the time, had previously burned down the Jeffries Ford and Bridgeton covered bridges. By the time police arrived at the scene of each fire, those bridges were already fully engulfed.

Payne eventually admitted to starting those fires, but asserted an insanity defense. He relied on three court-appointed psychiatrists’ diagnoses that Payne had “schizophrenia” with “prominent delusions [and] hallucinations,” and “schizophrenia, paranoid type,” which they concluded had prohibited Payne from appreciating the wrongfulness of his arsons and attempted arson.

A jury rejected his insanity defense and convicted Payne of two counts of Class B felony arson and Class B felony attempted arson. He was also found to be a habitual offender and received an aggregate 90-year sentence.

Among other things, Payne argued on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to show he was legally sane at the time of the offenses. That argument was based in part on the unanimous opinion of the court-appointed experts that he was not sane at the time of the offenses. Payne also argued the state’s circumstantial demeanor evidence was not probative of his sanity because that evidence was consistent with Payne’s delusions.

Payne relied on the Indiana Supreme Court’s split ruling in Barcroft v. State, 111 N.E.3d 997, 1002-06 (Ind. 2018). There, the majority concluded that “ample demeanor evidence” existed before, during and after a shooting to support the rejection of Lori Barcroft’s insanity defense after she shot and killed a pastor.

The Barcroft court also held that a fact-finder’s conclusion that a criminal defendant was sane at the time of the offense could be supported by circumstantial demeanor evidence alone, even if the unanimous opinion of three court appointed mental-health experts concluded that the defendant was suffering from a delusional psychosis at the time of the offense and that the circumstantial demeanor evidence was consistent with the defendant’s delusions.

“Following Barcroft here, we are obliged to conclude that the State’s demeanor evidence of Payne’s behavior before, during, and after the offenses is sufficient to support the jury’s finding that Payne was sane at the time of those offenses,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the appellate panel. “That evidence suggests that Payne’s conduct surrounding the crimes was calculated, deliberate, and premeditated.”

It concluded that Payne’s appeal was a request to reweigh the evidence, which the appellate panel refused to do.

“In sum, in Barcroft our Supreme Court clarified that Indiana’s appellate courts are to review a fact-finder’s rejection of a claim of insanity the same way we review any other claim of insufficient evidence to support a fact-finder’s determination,” the panel continued. “… Applying that standard here, we are obliged to conclude that the State presented sufficient evidence to show that Payne was able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct at the time of the offenses and, thus, that he was legally sane at those times.”

It thus affirmed Payne’s convictions and upheld his sentence in Jesse L. Payne v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-1359.

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