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Indiana Supreme Court considers murder sentence appeal for Joseph Oberhansley

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The Indiana Supreme Court is considering a sentence appeal for a man convicted in 2020 of killing and mutilating his ex-girlfriend at her Jeffersonville home.

The Indiana Supreme Court is considering whether a man sentenced to life without parole two years ago for killing and dismembering his ex-girlfriend should get a shorter sentence. 

In 2020, a jury found now 41-year-old Joseph Oberhansley guilty of murder and burglary, more than six years after he broke into the home of Tammy Jo Blanton, stabbed her to death and consumed parts of her organs. 

His attorneys filed a notice of appeal a week after his sentencing. The case was transferred to the Indiana Supreme Court last week. Appellate attorneys argue not enough weight was given to Oberhansley’s “profound mental illness” in sentencing. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sustained a permanent brain injury after a suicide attempt more than 20 years ago. 

“Oberhansley suffers from a serious and debilitating mental illness that causes him to become so detached from reality that he thought he had to kill Tammy and eat her organs to achieve a higher level of consciousness and strength,” according to an appellate brief. “Any sentence imposed in this case would not change what Oberhansley did. Nevertheless, sentencing him to serve the remainder of his life in prison is inappropriate.”

The lawyers also argue the jury failed to return a document called a verdict form showing they believed the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, a finding necessary for a life without parole sentence in Indiana. 

His attorneys had planned to use an insanity defense, but withdrew that when Oberhansley argued against it before the trial. He originally faced the death penalty, but the prosecution withdrew that as part of an agreement that included prohibiting the defense from using  mental health evidence during trial. 

Several times in the six years before his conviction, Oberhansley was deemed incompetent to stand trial, and sent to Logansport State Hospital for competency restoration. Competency means a defendant is able to participate and assist his attorneys in his defense. 

In an October response to the appeal request, state prosecutors argued there was no due process failure by the jury, which they say was “properly and repeatedly instructed that to recommend life without parole they were required to find that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances,” according to the filing.

They also say that, despite Oberhansley being diagnosed and treated for mental illness following Blanton’s death, “his mental illness does not outweigh the gruesome and brutal nature of the crime and Oberhansley’s deliberate and planned pursuit of Tammy for at least four days before the murder.”

Oberhansley was arrested in September 2014, after police performing a welfare check at Blanton’s home found her body mutilated in the bathtub. Oberhansley answered the door for officers, telling them two men had broken in and killed Blanton. He later said he killed her and ate parts of her organs but testified during trial that the confession was coerced. 

The discovery of her body came hours after Blanton called police to report Oberhansley trying to break in. She had broken up with him several days prior and changed the locks. Responding officers asked Oberhansley to leave, and he did. 

Blanton’s death came two years after Oberhansley was released from prison in Utah. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2000 after fatally shooting his 17-year-old girlfriend, Sabrina Elder, days after she had given birth to their child. He then turned the gun on his mother, who survived, and himself. 

Oberhansley’s lawyers are asking that the case be returned to the trial court in hopes of a judge imposing a shorter sentence.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.