Experts: Overstreet ruling may deter death penalty

(WISH Photo, file)

FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) — The hearings that allowed a northern Indiana judge to determine a death row inmate wasn’t competent to be executed are likely to serve as an example for future attorneys arguing over the issue of mental competence, legal experts say.

St. Joseph County Judge Jane Woodward Miller relied heavily on the testimony of an experienced forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Michael Dean Overstreet and also considered Overstreet’s long record of mental illness in ruling Nov. 20 that he is too mentally ill to be executed for the abduction, rape and murder of Franklin College student Kelly Eckart.

Experts say her ruling will set the standard for determining competence and could make deciding whether to pursue the death penalty even harder.

“It honestly makes me question whether it’s ever worth pursuing the death penalty again. How many millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours have just been laid to waste?” Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper told the Daily Journal.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that people with severe mental illnesses cannot be executed if they cannot understand why the state is putting them to death. It updated that ruling in 2007 in a new case filed by Texas death-row inmate Scott Panetti, stating that mentally ill prisoners must also be able to comprehend why the death penalty is an appropriate punishment and what will happen to them when they are executed.

The court left states to determine whether a prisoner is competent based on guidelines from the Panetti case.

Overstreet understands the state is executing him because he was convicted of confining, raping and killing Eckart. That would make him competent for execution under the old standard.

But the Panetti standard bars execution of prisoners who have a severe, documented mental illness that is the source of gross delusions that prevent the person from understanding the link between crime and punishment.

Court records show Overstreet believes he’s either already dead or in a coma and that the execution would allow him to wake up in his body and return to his family.

Indiana University law professor Jody Madeira said the way Miller reviewed the case fulfills the spirit of what the Supreme Court ordered states to determine.

“That is really the Panetti standard. I saw a lot of deference to the determination of psychosis, of documented mental illness even beyond the testimony among the forensic psychiatrists. There was a lot of careful consideration by the judge,” Madeira said.

She said Miller’s review sets a high threshold that could be more difficult for attorneys to prove, especially in cases of death row inmates who suffer from shorter-term or less severe illnesses than Overstreet’s paranoid schizophrenia.

“It’s all based on what the mental illness is and how sudden it has occurred. The Overstreet case, this is a long, long history, and we’re most skeptical as a society and as legal practitioners if this is something that suddenly manifests in jail,” she said.

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