The Indiana Supreme Court began its opinion in Payne v. State with the observation that the “criminal legal system rests on the assumption that humans are rational agents of free will with the ability to exercise conscious choice in their everyday actions.” Whether that assumption is accurate is hotly debated by philosophers and neuroscientists. There is much about the mind and the concept of self that we do not understand, but judges are comforted by long-held assumptions that, if abandoned, would undermine the foundations of criminal punishment.
Putting aside the debate about free will, it is commonly understood that some people, at least, are compelled by irrational beliefs to behave unlawfully. Those people are sometimes said to be insane, although many states have abandoned that term.
The criminal justice system is premised on the belief that serious punishment should be reserved for people who choose to commit a crime despite their knowledge that it is wrong to do so. Modern legal thought generally shields defendants from criminal punishment when, at the time they engage in unlawful conduct, they are suffering from a mental disease or defect that deprives them of the ability to control their actions or to understand that their actions are wrong.
The tests for legal responsibility (or “insanity” in those states that still use the term) vary from state to state. In Indiana, an accused is not legally responsible for conduct that would otherwise be criminal “if, as a result of mental disease or defect, he was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct at the time of the offense.”
Expert Testimony and Proof of Responsibility
Mental illness is typically proved by expert testimony. When a defense is based on the accused’s mental disease or defect, both the prosecution and the defense typically call an expert witness to opine whether the accused meets the relevant legal standard.
In some cases, however, mental illness and its impact on the defendant’s perception of reality is so obvious that all the experts agree that the legal standard is met. Those cases often result in a civil commitment based on the need to protect society from a dangerous person.
In Payne v. State, all the experts agreed that Payne was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct, but the prosecution nevertheless took the case to trial and obtained a conviction. The question before the Indiana Supreme Court was whether jurors are free to disregard the unanimous view of expert witnesses when they decide whether a defendant is responsible for a criminal act.
Facts of the Case
Jesse Payne was arrested for burning down two covered bridges in 2002 and 2005 and for attempting to burn a third bridge. A judge determined that Payne was incompetent to stand trial, presumably because his mental illness rendered him incapable of understanding the proceedings or assisting in his defense. In 2016, the court decided that Payne had regained competence and the prosecution resumed.
Payne defended the charge on the ground that, when the crimes occurred, he was incapable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his conduct. Indiana persists in referring to that defense as an “insanity defense.”
Pursuant to Indiana law, the court appointed three neutral experts — two psychiatrists and a psychologist — to evaluate Payne and to determine his mental status at the time the alleged crimes were committed. All three experts agreed that Payne “suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder, rendering him unable to distinguish right from wrong” in 2002 and 2005.
Notwithstanding the unanimous opinions of the experts, and not satisfied with the fact that Payne had lost his freedom for eleven years before being declared competent to stand trial, the prosecution took Payne to trial. The prosecution argued that Payne’s demeanor proved that he knew he was doing something wrong. The jury evidently agreed with that argument and found Payne guilty. The Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that the jury was entitled to give the demeanor evidence greater weight than the unanimous expert opinions and affirmed his conviction.
Appellate courts rarely second-guess a jury verdict. It is the jury’s function, not the court’s, to weigh the evidence. Juries are entitled to disbelieve witnesses, including expert witnesses.
But juries must still base their decisions on evidence, not on a sense of outrage that a crime might go unpunished if they vote to acquit a defendant who does not have the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong. The unwillingness of juries to let bad acts go unpunished makes the “insanity defense” a defense of last resort. Yet there are times when the evidence compels a finding that the defendant was not legally responsible for his actions, even if the jury chooses not to believe the obvious.
The supreme court noted that flaws in an expert’s opinion about the defendant’s mental status, combined with evidence of a defendant’s demeanor at the time the crime was committed, might reasonably permit the jury to find a defendant guilty. The primary Indiana precedent involved a defendant who had carefully planned a crime for weeks and then took steps to conceal evidence of the crime to avoid apprehension. Those facts, the court thought, could convince a jury that the defendant understood that it was wrong to commit the crime, given inconsistencies in the experts’ opinions.
Of course, failing to understand that conduct is wrong is not inconsistent with making a plan to engage in that conduct. A person might be driven by schizophrenia and paranoia to plan a crime without appreciating that the criminal conduct is morally wrong.
Concealing evidence might be seen as proof that the defendant knew the conduct could lead to punishment, but a desire to avoid consequences is not the same as appreciating that conduct is morally wrong. “Demeanor evidence” may therefore be an ambiguous ground upon which to base a rejection of uncontradicted expert testimony.
Expert Opinions and Demeanor Evidence in Payne’s Case
Regardless of the merit of Indiana precedent, the supreme court deemed it to be inapplicable. The court recognized that experts are “central to a determination of insanity.” The experts agreed that Payne’s history of paranoid schizophrenia and delusional disorder was longstanding and well documented. There was no evidence that Payne had been faking the condition before, during, or after he committed the acts of arson.
When expert opinions are in conflict or when there is reason to discount them, juries are free to choose among conflicting opinions or to reject them all. While “conflicting diagnoses, inadequate document review, deficient psychiatric evaluations” and similar flaws in the expert opinions might allow a jury to disregard those opinions, none of those flaws were present in Payne’s case. Nothing in the expert testimony gave the jury any factual basis for concluding that Payne did not meet the Indiana definition of insanity.
Nor did the prosecution’s reliance on “demeanor evidence” justify a verdict that disregarded the unanimous expert opinions. Dr. Jeffrey Huttinger explained that Payne’s demeanor, though “superficially normal to a casual observer,” was consistent with schizophrenia when his actions were “driven by some type of delusion.”
The prosecution relied on evidence that Payne set the fires late at night, a choice made — in the prosecution’s view — to avoid detection. The prosecution also argued that Payne lied when he told the police that fuel in his car was for camping and that he used convenience store receipts in an attempt to establish a false alibi. The prosecution suggested that the jury could view its evidence as establishing a consciousness of guilt.
The supreme court recognized that the jury was required to consider the totality of the evidence. The prosecution’s demeanor evidence was ambiguous. People who are paranoid and delusional might well operate in secrecy and tell lies. In fact, that conduct might be a product of their mental illness.
In the supreme court’s view, the prosecution’s demeanor evidence did not outweigh the unanimous opinion of three mental health experts that Payne was incapable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his conduct. Given the weight to which the expert opinions were entitled, the probative value of the prosecution’s demeanor evidence “effectively dissolves.” The court therefore concluded that “not guilty by reason of insanity” was the only verdict a reasonable jury could return.
The supreme court observed that its judgment is not a “get out of jail free” card. Indiana law requires a civil commitment proceeding to follow an acquittal on the ground of insanity. If Payne still suffers from a mental illness which makes him a danger to society — and he might not, given the prosecution’s argument that treatment restored his competence to stand trial — he will be subject to civil commitment until he no longer poses a danger.
The culture wars that divide America include a battle over expert opinions. Some people reject all expert opinions, whether they pertain to global warming or the dangers of coronavirus, as “elitist.” Those people believe that expert opinions are entitled to no greater deference than the opinions of people who have no expertise at all. That battle, coupled with the insurance industry’s relentless effort to portray all experts as “hired guns,” has tended to make juries less open to the opinions of experts who are more knowledgeable than lay jurors.
Judges routinely take cases away from civil juries because they believe that no reasonable jury could disbelieve the evidence presented by defense experts. The willingness to disregard the judgment of jurors in civil cases, where only money is at stake, should equally protect defendants in criminal cases, where freedom is at stake. When jurors refuse to believe unassailable expert opinions about a defendant’s mental health, it is the judiciary’s duty to set aside the jury’s unreasonable verdict and to acquit the defendant.