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Judges disagree over impact of mental illness label at sentencing

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7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Diane Wood believed that Michael Dean Overstreet, who was convicted of killing Franklin College student Kelly Eckart in 1997, was prejudiced by his attorneys’ decisions at sentencing regarding which experts should testify about his mental illness.

Overstreet was sentenced to death in 2000 for the abduction, rape and murder of Eckart. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentence in 2003 and affirmed an order denying Overstreet post-conviction relief. U.S. Chief Judge Philip Simon in the Northern District of Indiana denied Overstreet’s request to be removed from death row last year.

In his collateral attack under 28 U.S.C. Section 2254, Overstreet argued his lawyers made three errors that amounted to ineffective assistance: that his attorneys didn’t ask the trial judge to require spectators to remove buttons or ribbons with Eckart’s picture on them; that his lawyers failed to effectively convey the prosecutor’s offer of a plea bargain; and that his attorneys fell short presenting mitigating evidence during the sentencing hearing.

Three mental health specialists evaluated Overstreet: Drs. Eric Engum, Robert Smith and Philip Coons. Engum testified at the sentencing hearing that Overstreet had “schizotypal personality disorder.” Smith testified only at the post-conviction hearing that Overstreet had “schizoaffective disorder.” The record doesn’t say how Coons would have diagnosed him, as he didn’t testify at the sentencing hearing. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association stresses that persons suffering from schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder have more severe and persistent psychotic symptoms than those with schizotypal personality disorder.

In Michael Dean Overstreet v. Bill Wilson, superintendent, Indiana State Prison, 11-2276, the majority on the 7th Circuit concluded that Overstreet believed that Smith also should have been called at the sentencing hearing to better impress on the jury Overstreet’s mental problems. The Indiana Supreme Court doubted that the jurors would have been able to see a difference between the two disorders, and the majority agreed.

Wood thought the majority mischaracterized Overstreet’s claim, finding that Overstreet was actually arguing that his attorneys didn’t understand the distinction between the two doctors’ diagnoses and how Smith’s was more serious than Engum’s.

“In the end, I see no choice but to conclude that Overstreet’s lawyers handled the expert testimony at sentencing as they did, not because they were making a strategic decision, but because they were ignorant — they simply did not understand the evidence before them,” she wrote. “Ignorance is the antithesis of strategy. We thus have no reason to defer to their actions.”

She found a reasonable probability that re-presenting the jury with Smith’s testimony that Overstreet had a severe and persistent psychotic disorder would have changed the outcome of the “life-and-death” decision it made. Wood would grant the petition for writ of habeas corpus limited to the sentence imposed.

The judges agreed regarding Overstreet’s other two arguments, finding he wasn’t prejudiced.

 

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