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Pierson v. State

Court of Appeals of Indiana

April 4, 2017

Joseph Lee Pierson, Appellant-Defendant,
State of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff

         Appeal from the Wayne Superior Court The Honorable Gregory A. Horn, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 89D02-1202-MR-2

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT Cara Schaefer Wieneke Joel C. Wieneke Wieneke Law Office, LLC Brooklyn, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Chandra K. Hein Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana

          Baker, Judge.

         [¶1] Joseph Pierson appeals his conviction for Neglect of a Dependent Resulting in Death, [1] a Class A Felony. He argues that because he is intellectually disabled[2]he could not have formed the requisite intent to knowingly and voluntarily neglect a dependent; instead, he requests that he be convicted of reckless homicide. Additionally, he argues that the trial court erred by permitting one expert witness to testify via video deposition, and by permitting another expert witness to suggest that the legal definition of "mental disease" or "insanity" requires psychosis or hallucination. We find that there was sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that Pierson acted in a knowing and voluntary manner, that parties in a criminal case are permitted to agree to use a video deposition, and that the full context of the experts' remarks did not mislead the jury of the applicable legal standards; accordingly, we affirm.


         [¶2] Pierson and Amy Hockett had their fourth child, K.H., on October 11, 2011.[4] K.H. weighed roughly eight and one-half pounds at birth, and at his discharge from the hospital weighed just under eight pounds.

         [¶3] On February 5, 2012, the parents called the police because K.H. was not breathing. Emergency responders found Pierson holding K.H. They noted that the baby was extremely skinny, his limbs were stiff, and his skin was pale and cool to the touch. There were urine-soaked diapers around the home, which were also covered in feces. One responder later testified that K.H. had died long before they arrived.

         [¶4] Investigators interviewed the parents, but Hockett did most of the talking. Hockett said that K.H. could not keep food down well and that he suffered from diarrhea. She said that they would feed the baby every three or four hours. She informed investigators that Pierson has the mental functioning of a twelve- to fifteen-year-old.

         [¶5] An autopsy revealed that K.H. was extremely malnourished and that his body had wasted "away to practically nothing." Tr. p. 977. At his death, K.H. weighed six pounds, two ounces, which was two pounds less than when he left the hospital four months earlier. K.H. had bed sores on his lower back, which could have resulted from being left on his back for an extensive period of time or from staying in a soiled, unchanged diaper. The autopsy doctor estimated that K.H.'s level of malnutrition would only be possible after ten to eleven weeks.

         [¶6] On February 15, 2012, the State charged Pierson with murder and neglect of a dependent, a Class A felony.[5] The State later added a separate charge of neglect of a dependent, a Class D felony. Pierson filed a notice that he would argue insanity, based on his intellectual disability. After an evaluation, Pierson was found competent to stand trial.

         [¶7] At his February 4-8 and 11-12, 2013, trial, the State presented evidence that another of Hockett's and Pierson's children, D.P., was hospitalized for low weight in 2009. Hockett and Pierson received instructions on how to prevent such a medical condition in the future. A family friend testified that she had previously scolded Pierson for improperly filling K.H.'s formula bottles. That friend, Hockett's mother, and Hockett's step-father all testified that Hockett repeatedly mentioned taking K.H. to the local hospital for medical treatment for a range of maladies including leukemia, reflux, gallbladder problems, and kidney stones. Representatives from that hospital, however, testified that K.H. had not been brought into the hospital since October 18, 2011, one week after his birth, and that he was perfectly healthy at the time.

         [¶8] Two expert witnesses testified regarding Pierson's low-level mental functioning. They both opined that Pierson had a mild intellectual disability based upon his low I.Q. score and his inability to respond to basic abstract questioning. Pierson's I.Q. score has consistently registered around sixty-seven; the threshold score to be considered intellectually disabled is seventy. Neither expert, however, thought that Pierson met the definition of insanity. One expert, Dr. Parker, said the following: "Well the Indiana definition of mental disease calls for the presence of significantly impaired perception, uh, which I interpret to mean symptoms of psychosis, like hallucinations or delusions . . . ." Tr. p. 1065. Because Pierson did not experience psychosis or hallucinations, Dr. Parker concluded that Pierson did not meet the definition of insane. Pierson did not object to this testimony.

         [¶9] Both experts[6] did agree that Pierson's disability would impose moderate limitations on his capacity to maintain concentration, keep a routine, or carry out the basic activities of daily living. Dr. Parker also testified that someone with Pierson's condition might not even notice his own medical conditions, or that he should seek medical treatment, let alone notice the medical needs of another. Dr. Parker testified that Pierson was unable to calculate eight plus five, twelve minus nine, or ten minus four. Id. at 1076-77. Pierson was able to recall, however, that he should add one scoop of formula for every two ounces of water, two scoops for four ounces of water, and three scoops for six ounces of water. Id. at 1098.

         [¶10] The jury found Pierson not guilty of murder. He was found guilty but mentally ill of reckless homicide (a lesser included offense of murder), Class A felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death, and Class D felony neglect of a dependent. Out of double jeopardy concerns, the trial court entered a conviction for Class A felony neglect of a dependent resulting in death and vacated the other convictions. After a sentencing hearing, the trial court sentenced Pierson to thirty-seven years executed. Pierson now appeals.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶11] Pierson argues that there is insufficient evidence to convict him of neglect of a dependent resulting in death. That crime requires the State to prove, among other things, that the defendant acted "knowingly or intentionally" to place a dependent in a situation that endangers the dependent's life. I.C. ยง 35-46-1-4(a)(1). He contends that, because of his intellectual disability, the State did not prove that he acted with the requisite intent; accordingly, he asks that he be convicted of reckless homicide instead. He also argues that the trial court committed reversible error by allowing Dr. Davidson to testify via video deposition, which foreclosed the jury's ability to ask ...

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