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Federal judge upholds Evansville man's death sentence

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A federal judge in Indianapolis has upheld the death sentence of a condemned man who killed his wife and two young children in Evansville a decade ago.

U.S. Judge Tanya Walton Pratt ruled Thursday in the case of Paul M. McManus v. Bill Watson, No 1:07-cv-1483, denying a habeas corpus petition by Paul McManus. He was convicted by a jury in 2001 and sentenced to die for the February 2001 shooting deaths of his wife and children after she had filed for divorce. The convictions and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, but a post-conviction trial court later determined McManus was mentally retarded and turned the death sentence into life without parole. A divided Indiana Supreme Court in June 2007 reinstated the death penalty after reviewing the record, and the nation’s highest court declined to overturn that ruling.

Filing this habeas corpus petition in February 2008, McManus alleged that he was incompetent to stand trial because he had ingested medication and was forced to appear before the jury in a “drug-induced stupor that dramatically and artificially altered his demeanor,” the state failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, his execution is barred by the Eighth Amendment because he is mentally retarded, trial counsel was ineffective in investigating his defense and presenting mitigating evidence, and that he was sentenced to death based on a judge’s findings rather than a jury decision.

Judge Pratt issued a 28-page decision determining that McManus hadn’t met his burden in proving the allegations or that he hadn’t raised a particular issue during the direct appeal stage before the Indiana state courts.

One significant driving point in the Indiana Supreme Court reinstatement was McManus’ level of intellectual functioning at the time of the crime. McManus challenged the state justices’ conclusions on that point and argued that both evidence and research from mental and psychological organizations show he wasn’t competent to stand trial. But Judge Pratt found the justices adequately examined and explained that point and didn’t misapply caselaw to his particular facts.

Judge Pratt pointed out in her conclusion that McManus’ convictions and sentence have withstood challenge in the Indiana state court system and so a presumption of constitutional regularity attached to it, according to Farmer v. Litscher, 303 F. 3d 840, 845 (7th Cir. 2002). She carefully reviewed the state record relating to his current claims and found that no such established rules entitle McManus to any habeas corpus relief.

The Indiana attorney general’s office responded to the ruling on Friday, saying this ruling is “one important step in a complex, decade-long legal process” and is part of the state’s effort for justice.

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