The Indiana Supreme Court today upheld the death sentence against a man condemned for murdering a college student, though the authoring justice disagreed and his writing could offer a key for another execution to be tossed out.
In Michael Dean Overstreet v. State of Indiana, 41S00-0306-PD-249, the court affirmed the post-conviction judgment of Johnson Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes, who’d first sentenced him to death in 2000. The case involves the September 1997 disappearance, rape, and strangulation of Franklin College freshman Kelly Eckart. Overstreet has been on death row for six years and he remains there with this ruling.
The 46-page opinion grapples mostly with the mental illness issue, but also hits on an issue of first impression for Indiana – whether courtroom spectators wearing buttons were prejudicial to Overstreet’s right to a fair trial. During his trial, spectators wore buttons with Eckart’s picture on them, and Overstreet later appealed. Justices turned to the U.S. Supreme Court for guidance and said the record here doesn’t reflect that anything rose to the level of the unacceptable.
While all five justices agreed to affirm the trial court’s judgment, they disagreed slightly on the issue of state constitutional claims and whether Overstreet should be executed in light of claims that he’s mentally ill.
The court’s majority and minority lines blurred slightly in the Overstreet ruling, with authoring Justice Robert Rucker writing for the court but also inserting language more commonly found in the state court’s dissents, not majority opinions.
Justice Rucker wrote that he sees no principled distinction between Overstreet’s claims and those of the mentally retarded, which by state law cannot be executed.
“That is to say, if a person who is mentally ill suffers from the same ‘diminished capacities’ as a person who is mentally retarded, then logic dictates that it would be equally offensive to the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to execute that mentally ill person,” Justice Rucker wrote, citing previous federal caselaw on the issue. “I would declare that executing Overstreet constitutes purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering thereby violating the Cruel and Unusual Punishment provision of the Indiana Constitution.”
The writing reflects a long-standing rationale for Justice Rucker, who has often been in the court minority relating to death-penalty issues. In this case, Justice Rucker wrote he would remand to the trial court with instructions to impose a sentence of life without parole. However, his colleagues on the court – while all voted to affirm the judgment of the post-conviction court – did not go that far and support that holding in separate opinions.
Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard notes that Overstreet’s state claim has already been decided adversely to his position, and that the lower court should be affirmed in all respects. Justice Frank Sullivan concurred, as did Justices Theodore Boehm and Brent Dickson in separate opinions.
Those four justices agreed that the state Constitution doesn’t afford greater protection than the Eighth Amendment on this issue, at least not without revisions to state law.
“Although I can certainly understand why the legislature might choose to prohibit the execution of all persons suffering from severe mental illness, that has not occurred in this state, and I cannot read Article I, Section 16 more expansively than the Eighth Amendment,” Justice Boehm wrote.
Though Overstreet’s death sentence stands, another capital case before the state’s highest court could go the other way. A key can be found in Justice Rucker’s writing that “there is no evidence that indicates (Overstreet) questions the reality of the crime occurring or the reality of his punishment by the State for the crime committed.”
That rationale could come into play if the court decides on an appeal by Norman Timberlake, a New Albany man convicted of shooting and killing a state trooper in 1993 and who died in his Michigan City prison cell Nov. 10. An autopsy showed the cause was emphysema. Timberlake had filed a petition for the state’s highest court to rehear his case on the grounds that he’s mentally unfit to be executed.
Justices had halted Timberlake’s execution in January so that the Supreme Court of the United States could address a similar case out of Texas. A ruling came in June, blocking the execution of Scott Panetti on grounds that it’s cruel and unusual punishment to execute a delusional inmate who doesn’t understand why he’s being put to death.
The SCOTUS ruled 5-4 in the case of Panetti v. Quarterman, 127 S. Ct. 2842 (2007), which blocked Panetti’s execution on grounds that he’s mentally ill, suffers from delusional beliefs that the state was “in league with the forces of evil to prevent him from preaching the Gospel,” and that the lower court should have considered the argument.
At play in Timberlake’s case are similar facts: while the record reflects he understood the crime he committed and that he was to be executed, less clear is if Timberlake clearly understood the reason for his execution. His attorney has argued that Timberlake was paranoid, delusional, and irrationally believed a government-operated machine was trying to torture and kill him.
On Nov. 13, attorneys filed notice of Timberlake’s death. The court, which could dismiss the request as moot or rule on the legal merits of the case, has taken the matter under advisement. No decision had been reached by early afternoon today.