7th Circuit grants habeas relief for man on death row

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An Evansville man sentenced to death for the 2001 murders of his wife and two daughters is not entitled to habeas relief on his claim of intellectual disability, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday. But his petition should be granted because the state courts unreasonably applied federal due process standards in adjudicating his competency to stand trial.

Paul McManus shot and killed his estranged wife and two young daughters after he was served with divorce papers. After the murders, he climbed to the top of the Ohio River Bridge and threw himself in the river. He was rescued by law enforcement and later charged with three counts of murder.

McManus’ mental competency was at issue, so he was psychologically examined. While on pretrial detention, he was treated with anxiety and antidepressant drugs. The first two days of his trial, he suffered from panic attacks and was sent to the hospital for treatment. The hospital physician told the court that the drugs McManus took could likely prevent him from thinking rationally, but because he was an emergency room doctor, he was not sure what McManus’ reaction to the drug would be.

McManus’ attorneys moved for a mistrial or continuance so he could be evaluated by a psychiatrist for competency and stabilized, but the court denied the motion, finding him to be competent to assist his counsel. His attorney repeatedly moved for mistrials throughout the trial based on McManus’ drug treatment and competency, but those were denied. A jury rejected his insanity defense and found him guilty; the judge imposed the death sentence as recommended by the jury.

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed on appeal, but a post-conviction review found McManus intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. A divided Supreme Court reversed and reimposed the death sentence.

McManus sought federal habeas review regarding the rejection of his claim of intellectual disability under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). The 7th Circuit also included for review whether the state courts unreasonably applied federal due process standards in finding him competent to stand trial, among other issues.

We agree with the district court that McManus is not entitled to habeas relief on his claim of categorical ineligibility for the death penalty. The state high court applied the rule of Atkins and made a reasonable factual determination that McManus is not intellectually disabled,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote. “But the state courts unreasonably applied clearly established due-process standards for adjudicating a defendant’s competency to stand trial.”

“The powerful effect of the medications alone created substantial doubt about McManus’s mental fitness for trial, but the judge never ordered a competency evaluation,” she continued, noting the court focused on getting him “fixed up” enough to complete the trial.

“By taking this approach, the judge failed to apply the legal framework established in Dusky and Pate for addressing competency questions. The Indiana Supreme Court recited the correct legal standard but in the end did not actually apply it.”

The 7th Circuit remanded to the District Court with instructions to grant the writ unless Indiana gives notice of its intent to retry McManus within a reasonable time to be set by the District Court.  The case is Paul M. McManus v. Ron Neal, superintendent, Indiana State Prison, 12-2001.

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