Closing arguments in trial set for today
Fernbach's mental health questioned

Wanda English Burnett

Was James Fernbach Jr. capable of understanding right from wrong when he shot two people in Batesville in April of 2009?

That was the question that was heard in the courtroom as the trial continued last week for the Batesville man. The jury will not only be deciding if Fernbach is guilty of shooting two people, which prompted the State to file formal charges of Attempted Murder, but they will also be determining if he (Fernbach) knew right from wrong at the time of the shooting.

The trial began last Wednesday, January 12 after a lengthy process of selecting the jury was held on Tuesday in Ripley County Circuit Court. Fernbach has been charged with two counts of Attempted Murder for shooting Phillip Cruser of Westport in the head and Benjamin Dick of Sunman, in the hand, just outside the Day Nite Food Store in Batesville on April 4, 2009.

The complicated trial has taken different turns as witnesses testified for both the State and the Defense. As reported in The Versailles Republican last week, Fernbach’s wife at the time of the shootings, testified saying her husband was depressed, paranoid, anxious and scared. She said he was on a multitude of medications, but seemed okay that particular day (the day of the shootings).

Ex-girlfriend and mother of Fernbach’s child, Heather Garrett testified about domestic violence she experienced at the hands of the defendant. She said he chased her with an ax, broke a cop’s nose, and at one point she thought he was going to break her neck. She also testified that Fernbach was awarded visitation rights with his child.

On Thursday, January 13 the State rested and Fernbach’s defense attorney Mark Jones began calling witnesses. The defendant never made eye contact with the witnesses as they were called.

Fernbach’s mother-in-law at the time of the shooting, Lynn Mattox testified that “Jimmy was never threatening to anyone.” She said if he used drugs, she wasn’t aware of it. She also acknowledged that the defendant knew to leave the house to smoke cigarettes because he couldn’t smoke inside on the day of the shootings.

Jurors heard from Matt Sharpless, a neighbor of Fernbach’s, who testified that the defendant had always thought people were out to get him.

Another witness, Fernbach’s sister-in-law at the time of the crime, Carol Holt, took the stand. She said she was comfortable with leaving her four-year-old son overnight at the Fernbach’s home. She said he (Fernbach) sometimes took her son fishing. She said she never saw him on drugs or showing violent tendencies.

A trip that seemed a turning point in Fernbach’s life was referred to by more than one witness at the trial. Holt also testified that on a family trip to North Carolina Fernbach displayed paranoid behavior and did not recover. She noticed no-trespassing signs at his home the defendant had placed and said he barricaded the doors saying someone was out to get him. She said she didn’t think he knew the wrongfulness of his actions on April 4, 2009.

Prosecutor Ric Hertel set the stage to discredit Holt’s theory that Fernbach didn’t know it was wrong to shoot two people. Holt testified that the defendant would never put her son in harm’s way. Hertel said Fernbach wouldn’t because he knew that it would be wrong to do that to a four-year-old. Holt didn’t change her opinion on Fernbach’s mental state when the shootings occurred.

The jury reviewed a thick stack of mental health reports and were then excused for the day.
Friday was a day jurors would hear from mental health professionals.

The law in Indiana says that a judge must appoint at least two physicians with one being a psychiatrist in a case where the insanity plea is raised. Judge Carl Taul was the judge in this case who appointed the two physicians.

Philip Coons, an IU professor emeritus, testified that the defendant knew right from wrong when he called police nine minutes after the shootings, but was insane at the time he pulled the trigger. It was also noted that he had not read a single prior psychiatric record (that was about six inches thick) on the defendant who he examined about 90 days after the shooting incident.

From testimony it was brought out that Dr. Coons had not seen a patient since 1995.

Another mental health professional Dr. Kurzhals testified that he examined Fernbach once. That examination lasted about three hours and 45 minutes on August 9, 2009, more than 120 days after the shooting occurred. He said the defendant had paranoid delusional beliefs and was hearing voices at the time he examined him. He said the defendant acknowledged that he purchased the gun illegally because his wife would be upset with him spending the money on it.

Under cross-examination by the state, Dr. Kurzhals said he was not aware of six separate diagnoses of polysubstance abuse by the defendant. Neither doctor knew about the nine previous convictions of crimes of violence committed by Fernbach.

During Fernbach’s competency evaluations, the defendant made the statement “get me the best situation possible.” Dr. Kurzhals testified that there could be two different diagnoses by two different doctors.
At the end of the doctors' testimonies, it was determined by the judge that the trial would recess until Tuesday morning at 8:00 a.m. at which time the state and defense would present closing argument.
(Editor’s note) Ongoing trial coverage will continue in The Versailles Republican.