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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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