The recent ruling that determined death row inmate Michael Dean Overstreet is too mentally ill to be executed will be a new standard in Indiana for future cases.
Judges and attorneys likely will reference Overstreet’s case as an example of how to conduct a hearing and what types of evidence might help to prove or disprove a person is competent to be executed. The ruling made by St. Joseph County Judge Jane Woodward Miller was the first of its kind in Indiana.
After a four-day hearing in September, Miller determined that Overstreet’s paranoid schizophrenia was too severe for him to understand the link between his death sentence for the abduction, rape and murder of Franklin College student Kelly Eckart and the seriousness and purpose of the execution.
Judges will follow Miller’s example of how to preside over the hearing and what information is relevant to prove whether an inmate is competent, Indiana University law professor Jody Madeira said. Attorneys will be able to review the case to study what types of arguments and evidence seemed to impact the case and try to mimic those going forward, she said.
But the ruling opens a question of what it would take for the state to prove that Overstreet is competent and could be executed if his condition ever improved or changed, Madeira said. A new hearing with new evidence likely would be necessary, but it’s unclear whether lawyers would have to meet the same types of guidelines as the first hearing, she said.
And since Overstreet’s attorneys successfully stopped his execution, the ruling now presents one more challenge prosecutors must face while trying to get a prisoner executed, Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that people with severe mental illnesses cannot be executed if they’re unable to factually understand why the state is putting them to death. The highest court updated that ruling in 2007 in a new case filed by Texas death-row inmate Scott Panetti that said that mentally ill prisoners must also be able to comprehend why the death penalty is an appropriate punishment and what will happen to them when they are executed.
To prove a person is incompetent, that prisoner must have a severe, documented mental illness, that illness must be the source of gross delusions, and those delusions must divide one so far from reality that the person can’t rationally understand the link between crime and punishment.
Under the old standard, Overstreet might have been considered competent to be executed. He does understand the state is executing him because he was convicted of the confinement, rape and murder of Eckart and that DNA evidence proved it, even though he says doesn’t remember committing the crime.
But Overstreet believes he’s either already dead or in a coma and that the execution would not lead to his death but allow him to wake up in his body and return to his family, meaning he qualified for consideration under the newer Panetti ruling, according to the Indiana Supreme Court decision that ordered the competency hearing.
The U.S. Supreme Court left it to states to set up their own methods to determine whether a prisoner is competent based on guidelines from the Panetti case. In her ruling, Miller outlined how the evidence in Overstreet’s case fulfilled each of the three thresholds set out by the Supreme Court, Madeira said.
The way Miller reviewed the case and made her decision fulfills the spirit of what the Supreme Court ordered states to determine, Madeira said.
“That is really the Panetti standard. I saw a lot of deference to the determination of psychosis, of documented mental illness even beyond the testimony among the forensic psychiatrists. There was a lot of careful consideration by the judge,” Madeira said.
The state can appeal Miller’s ruling, but the appeal would be a judicial review by the Indiana Supreme Court. Justices would determine whether Miller conducted a proper hearing and whether her ruling was reasonable based on the evidence that was presented. No new information would be presented.
Indiana judges who might hear future competency to be executed cases likely will follow Miller’s model of how she reached her decision since there are no other examples of cases in Indiana and only a handful nationwide since 2007, Madeira said. Miller drew heavily on the testimony of an experienced forensic psychiatrist who evaluated Overstreet and also considered Overstreet’s long record of mental illness in order to form her opinion in the case, Madeira said.
Miller’s level of scrutiny sets a high threshold that could be more difficult for attorneys to prove in cases where death row inmates who might suffer from shorter-term or less severe illnesses than Overstreet’s paranoid schizophrenia, Madeira said.
“It’s all based on what the mental illness is and how sudden it has occurred. The Overstreet case, this is a long, long history, and we’re most skeptical as a society and as legal practitioners if this is something that suddenly manifests in jail,” she said.
Cooper said Miller’s ruling will make it more difficult to complete the death penalty process. Not every death row inmate would qualify for a competency hearing, but Cooper said he thinks the decision will encourage inmates or attorneys to try to play up symptoms in an effort to derail a lethal injection.
“It honestly makes me question whether it’s ever worth pursuing the death penalty again. How many millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours have just been laid to waste,” Cooper said.
If a push for competency hearings becomes more common, it will stretch out the death penalty process for even longer and give more time for a person with a progressive mental illness to further deteriorate, Cooper said. Every extra year and every case that is stopped also reduces the deterrent effect the death penalty is supposed to have on society, he said.
Overstreet’s execution is delayed indefinitely until a time when attorneys could prove he is competent, which would be an entirely new legal proceeding the state has never dealt with, Madeira said.
If doctors were able to find a medication regimen to control Overstreet’s symptoms to where he is consistently lucid and his mental function improves, the courts would need to develop a new method to reopen the case, she said. Judges might be able to use the same type of process that Miller set, except that instead of the defense trying to prove the inmate is not competent, the burden would shift to the state to prove that he or she is, Madeira said.