Appeals court reduces misdemeanor sentence of man first charged at age 64

A man who picked up his first of several criminal charges at age 64 amid signs of undiagnosed mental illness and was subsequently ordered to spend 15 months behind bars on misdemeanor charges received an inappropriate sentence, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

Jerry Wayne Smith’s troubles with the law began in June 2018, when he was charged with three counts of trespass and a no-contact order was issued prohibiting him from contacting a juvenile female who worked at the IGA grocery store in Clinton. Two months later, with the trespass charges still pending, he was charged with invasion of privacy for violating the no-contact order.

Smith pleaded guilty to the trespass charges and was sentenced to serve 34 days of a one-year sentence, with the balance suspended to probation.

While on probation and with the invasion of privacy charge pending, police approached Smith as he was walking because they wanted to talk to him about a report that he had driven his vehicle into the side of a Dollar General store and then left the scene. After a short foot pursuit, Smith was additionally charged with misdemeanor counts of resisting law enforcement, leaving the scene of an accident and violating probation.

He pleaded guilty to resisting and the invasion of privacy count and admitted violating his probation, and the state dropped the leaving the scene charge. At sentencing, Smith’s attorney noted Smith suffers from severe prostate cancer and suspected mental health issues, though Smith had not been evaluated.

“Smith testified to some strange beliefs, including that he possessed pictures of extraterrestrial sites and knew ‘wild codes’ to a house with a ‘white limestone moon door,’” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the Court of Appeals panel.

“Smith also reported seeing red laser beams and that he believed his neighbor was attempting to kill him with a ‘gun laser beam.’ … Deputy James Miller of the Vermillion County Sheriff’s Department testified that, in November 2019, Smith called law enforcement and rambled incoherently, claiming to be ‘the next prophet’ and finishing the call by saying ‘happy hunting.’ … Deputy Miller and Smith testified about an incident in December 2019, in which Smith and his wife fled their home and erratically drove through multiple counties, believing they were being chased by the aforementioned neighbor with the laser-beam gun. Despite these alarming signs and admissions from both Smith’s attorney and the State that Smith’s behavior was indicative of some mental-health problem, Smith has never undergone a mental-health evaluation during his criminal proceedings,” Vaidik wrote, though one had been ordered.

The appellate panel found the Vermillion Circuit Court’s sentencing order requiring Smith to serve 180 days of a 365-day sentence on the resisting conviction inappropriate based on Smith’s character and the nature of the offense in Jerry Wayne Smith v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-672.

“Smith’s offense was relatively minor on the spectrum of resisting law enforcement. Smith, a sixty-five-year-old man in poor physical health, led officers on a short foot pursuit and was quickly apprehended. There is no evidence in the record that Smith’s act of resisting injured anyone else or damaged any property,” Vaidik wrote. “… His lengthy sentencing testimony included ramblings on aliens, the Bible, Revelations, and other irrelevant and sometimes incoherent thoughts. This evidence leads us to believe Smith’s recent criminal acts are just as much the result of deteriorating mental health as they are of genuine criminal intent.”

“Furthermore, the record does not suggest that Smith is a person of poor character. To be sure, his behavior over the past two years has been troubling. But by all accounts, Smith was a law-abiding citizen until age sixty-four, when he began committing a series of misdemeanor offenses,” the panel noted, adding Smith’s physically disabled wife relies on him as her primary caretaker.

“For these reasons, Smith has convinced us that a 365-day sentence, with 185 suspended to probation and 180 days to serve consecutive to the 277 days for the probation violation, is inappropriate. We therefore reverse and remand to the trial court to impose a sentence of 365 days, with 20 days to serve and 345 days suspended to probation. Smith will be on probation for 345 days and, as already ordered by the trial court, will be required to undergo a mental-health evaluation and follow all recommendations,” the panel concluded.

Vaidik added in a footnote that in December 2019, Smith was additionally charged in Vermillion Circuit Court in separate cases with Level 6 felony criminal trespass and two Level 6 felony counts of intimidation. The cases are set for a jury trial next month.

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