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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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  1. A traditional parade of attorneys? Really Evansville? Y'all need to get out more. When is the traditional parade of notaries? Nurses? Sanitation workers? Pole dancers? I gotta wonder, do throngs of admiring citizens gather to laud these marching servants of the constitution? "Show us your billing records!!!" Hoping some video gets posted. Ours is not a narcissistic profession by any chance, is it? Nah .....

  2. My previous comment not an aside at court. I agree with smith. Good call. Just thought posting here a bit on the if it bleeds it leads side. Most attorneys need to think of last lines of story above.

  3. Hello everyone I'm Gina and I'm here for the exact same thing you are. I have the wonderful joy of waking up every morning to my heart being pulled out and sheer terror of what DCS is going to Throw at me and my family today.Let me start from the !bebeginning.My daughter lost all rights to her 3beautiful children due to Severe mental issues she no longer lives in our state and has cut all ties.DCS led her to belive that once she done signed over her right the babies would be with their family. We have faught screamed begged and anything else we could possibly due I hired a lawyer five grand down the drain.You know all I want is my babies home.I've done everything they have even asked me to do.Now their saying I can't see my grandchildren cause I'M on a prescription for paipain.I have a very rare blood disease it causes cellulitis a form of blood poisoning to stay dormant in my tissues and nervous system it also causes a ,blood clotting disorder.even with the two blood thinners I'm on I still Continue to develop them them also.DCS knows about my illness and still they refuse to let me see my grandchildren. I Love and miss them so much Please can anyone help Us my grandchildren and I they should be worrying about what toy there going to play with but instead there worrying about if there ever coming home again.THANK YOU DCS FOR ALL YOU'VE DONE. ( And if anyone at all has any ideals or knows who can help. Please contact (765)960~5096.only serious callers

  4. He must be a Rethuglican, for if from the other side of the aisle such acts would be merely personal and thus not something that attaches to his professional life. AND ... gotta love this ... oh, and on top of talking dirty on the phone, he also, as an aside, guess we should mention, might be important, not sure, but .... "In addition to these allegations, Keaton was accused of failing to file an appeal after he collected advance payment from a client seeking to challenge a ruling that the client repay benefits because of unreported income." rimshot

  5. I am not a fan of some of the 8.4 discipline we have seen for private conduct-- but this was so egregious and abusive and had so many points of bad conduct relates to the law and the lawyer's status as a lawyer that it is clearly a proper and just disbarment. A truly despicable account of bad acts showing unfit character to practice law. I applaud the outcome.

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