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. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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