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Federal judge upholds death sentence

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A federal judge in northern Indiana has denied a condemned inmate’s request to take him off death row, rejecting multiple claims that include one that would basically create a new rule prohibiting those who are severely mentally ill from being executed as is the standard for the mentally retarded.

U.S. Chief Judge Philip Simon in South Bend on Thursday issued an order in the case of Michael Dean Overstreet, who was convicted and sentenced to die in 2000 for the murder, rape, and confinement of Franklin College student Kelly Eckart three years earlier. Johnson Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes imposed the death sentence and that was upheld on direct appeal in 2003 and in post-conviction relief proceedings in subsequent years. Overstreet had been set to be executed by lethal injection May 30, 2008.

But before that date, the convicted killer filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Northern District of Indiana and his execution was stayed.

Overstreet raised 11 claims in his petition for relief, arguments that ranged from ineffective trial and appellate counsel, procedural and evidentiary issues during his trial and appeals, and inadequate review by the Indiana Supreme Court in addressing the issue of whether he should be considered “mentally ill” and eligible for execution.

In early March, Chief Judge Simon issued a 72-page opinion denying the petition on all grounds and upholding the death sentence. The judge granted certifiability on five of those claims for appeal, including procedural issues, whether Overstreet was prejudiced by trial counsel omissions, and the severe mental-illness arguments.

Specifically, on that 11th claim regarding mental illness, Chief Judge Simon wrote that Overstreet is essentially asking the court to extend the landmark holding of Atkins v. Virginia, 536, U.S. 304(2002), that banned the execution of the mentally retarded, to his specific case and condition. At the PCR state level, Indiana Supreme Court Justice Robert Rucker had dissented from his colleagues’ decision about executing Overstreet because under the state Constitution he didn’t see the man’s mental health being practically any different than those who are considered mentally retarded.

“Overstreet essentially asks me to take the state constitutional analysis that Justice Rucker employed and apply its reasoning as federal constitutional law in this case,” Chief Judge Simon wrote in the March order. “That analysis was not supported by any of the four other justices – all of whom disagreed with Justice Rucker’s interpretation of the Indiana Constitution. Moreover, Overstreet has not identified any court which has adopted this position and the 11th Circuit has expressly rejected it. Even assuming that Overstreet suffers from a serious mental illness, I am not convinced that there is a legal basis for adopting what Overstreet himself acknowledges would be a ‘new rule.’ Though the United States Supreme Court may one day extend the underlying principles of Atkins to such defendants, it has not yet done so.”

Overstreet asked the judge to alter his sentence based on misapplication of law, but Chief Judge Simon refused to do that in a five-page order this week.

Now, the death row inmate housed in Michigan City has the opportunity to appeal to the 7th Circuit and ultimately the nation’s highest court before the clemency process begins.
 
 

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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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