ILNews

Court: Death sentence stands

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Supreme Court today upheld the death sentence against a man condemned for murdering a college student, though the authoring justice disagreed and his writing could offer a key for another execution to be tossed out.

In Michael Dean Overstreet v. State of Indiana, 41S00-0306-PD-249, the court affirmed the post-conviction judgment of Johnson Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes, who'd first sentenced him to death in 2000. The case involves the September 1997 disappearance, rape, and strangulation of Franklin College freshman Kelly Eckart. Overstreet has been on death row for six years and he remains there with this ruling.

The 46-page opinion grapples mostly with the mental illness issue, but also hits on an issue of first impression for Indiana - whether courtroom spectators wearing buttons were prejudicial to Overstreet's right to a fair trial. During his trial, spectators wore buttons with Eckart's picture on them, and Overstreet later appealed. Justices turned to the U.S. Supreme Court for guidance and said the record here doesn't reflect that anything rose to the level of the unacceptable.

While all five justices agreed to affirm the trial court's judgment, they disagreed slightly on the issue of state constitutional claims and whether Overstreet should be executed in light of claims that he's mentally ill.

The court's majority and minority lines blurred slightly in the Overstreet ruling, with authoring Justice Robert Rucker writing for the court but also inserting language more commonly found in the state court's dissents, not majority opinions.

Justice Rucker wrote that he sees no principled distinction between Overstreet's claims and those of the mentally retarded, which by state law cannot be executed.

"That is to say, if a person who is mentally ill suffers from the same 'diminished capacities' as a person who is mentally retarded, then logic dictates that it would be equally offensive to the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to execute that mentally ill person," Justice Rucker wrote, citing previous federal caselaw on the issue. "I would declare that executing Overstreet constitutes purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering thereby violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishment provision of the Indiana Constitution."

The writing reflects a long-standing rationale for Justice Rucker, who has often been in the court minority relating to death-penalty issues. In this case, Justice Rucker wrote he would remand to the trial court with instructions to impose a sentence of life without parole. However, his colleagues on the court - while all voted to affirm the judgment of the post-conviction court - did not go that far and support that holding in separate opinions.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard notes that Overstreet's state claim has already been decided adversely to his position, and that the lower court should be affirmed in all respects. Justice Frank Sullivan concurred, as did Justices Theodore Boehm and Brent Dickson in separate opinions.

Those four justices agreed that the state Constitution doesn't afford greater protection than the Eighth Amendment on this issue, at least not without revisions to state law.

"Although I can certainly understand why the legislature might choose to prohibit the execution of all persons suffering from severe mental illness, that has not occurred in this state, and I cannot read Article I, Section 16 more expansively than the Eighth Amendment," Justice Boehm wrote.

Though Overstreet's death sentence stands, another capital case before the state's highest court could go the other way. A key can be found in Justice Rucker's writing that "there is no evidence that indicates (Overstreet) questions the reality of the crime occurring or the reality of his punishment by the State for the crime committed."

That rationale could come into play if the court decides on an appeal by Norman Timberlake, a New Albany man convicted of shooting and killing a state trooper in 1993 and who died in his Michigan City prison cell Nov. 10. An autopsy showed the cause was emphysema. Timberlake had filed a petition for the state's highest court to rehear his case on the grounds that he's mentally unfit to be executed.

Justices had halted Timberlake's execution in January so that the Supreme Court of the United States could address a similar case out of Texas. A ruling came in June, blocking the execution of Scott Panetti on grounds that it's cruel and unusual punishment to execute a delusional inmate who doesn't understand why he's being put to death.

The SCOTUS ruled 5-4 in the case of Panetti v. Quarterman, 127 S. Ct. 2842 (2007), which blocked Panetti's execution on grounds that he's mentally ill, suffers from delusional beliefs that the state was "in league with the forces of evil to prevent him from preaching the Gospel," and that the lower court should have considered the argument.

At play in Timberlake's case are similar facts: while the record reflects he understood the crime he committed and that he was to be executed, less clear is if Timberlake clearly understood the reason for his execution. His attorney has argued that Timberlake was paranoid, delusional, and irrationally believed a government-operated machine was trying to torture and kill him.

On Nov. 13, attorneys filed notice of Timberlake's death. The court, which could dismiss the request as moot or rule on the legal merits of the case, has taken the matter under advisement. No decision had been reached by early afternoon today.
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  1. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

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  3. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

  4. JLAP and other courtiers ... Those running court systems, have most substance abuse issues. Probably self medicating to cover conscience issues arising out of acts furthering govt corruption

  5. I whole-heartedly agree with Doug Church's comment, above. Indiana lawyers were especially fortunate to benefit from Tom Pyrz' leadership and foresight at a time when there has been unprecedented change in the legal profession. Consider how dramatically computer technology and its role in the practice of law have changed over the last 25 years. The impact of the great recession of 2008 dramatically changed the composition and structure of law firms across the country. Economic pressures altered what had long been a routine, robust annual recruitment process for law students and recent law school graduates. That has, in turn, impacted law school enrollment across the country, placing upward pressure on law school tuition. The internet continues to drive significant changes in the provision of legal services in both public and private sectors. The ISBA has worked to make quality legal representation accessible and affordable for all who need it and to raise general public understanding of Indiana laws and procedures. How difficult it would have been to tackle each of these issues without Tom's leadership. Tom has set the tone for positive change at the ISBA to meet the evolving practice needs of lawyers of all backgrounds and ages. He has led the organization with vision, patience, flexibility, commitment, thoughtfulness & even humor. He will, indeed, be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Tom, for all you've done and all the energy you've invested in making the ISBA an excellent, progressive, highly responsive, all-inclusive, respectful & respected professional association during his tenure there.

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