The man sentenced to death for murdering a Franklin College student 17 years ago understands why he’s on death row, but his attorneys say he doesn’t comprehend that his execution will mean the end of his life.
Now a South Bend judge will hear four days of testimony from doctors discussing whether Michael Dean Overstreet understands his punishment.
If she determines he isn’t competent, the decision would put an immediate halt to his death sentence. He would continue living in prison until a time when the state could prove he is competent.
Fourteen years have passed since a Johnson County judge sentenced Overstreet to die for abducting, raping and murdering 18-year-old Kelly Eckart, a Franklin College freshman who lived at home in nearby Boggstown. Overstreet abducted Eckart after bumping his van into her car at a Franklin intersection in September 1997.
Less than a week later, her body was found in a Brown County ravine, sending shivers through the community as police tried to figure out who had raped and strangled her. Less than two months after her death, police arrested Overstreet, a lifelong Franklin resident who lived near where she worked at the city’s Walmart.
During his trial, Overstreet’s brother told the story of how Overstreet had taken an unconscious young woman to the Camp Atterbury area early Sept. 27, 1997. Overstreet’s then-wife told the court about how they cleaned his van days after Eckart disappeared and how he was glued to newspaper and TV reports about her disappearance, murder and search for the killer.
DNA evidence found on Eckart’s body matched Overstreet with a certainty of 1 to 4 trillion. The jury convicted him on all four charges — confinement causing serious bodily injury, rape, murder and murder in commission of a felony after the trial. Judge Cynthia Emkes handed down the sentence: death.
None of those details is being argued now.
These hearings won’t rehash the details of whether he murdered Eckart, whether the jury was right to convict him, whether he was mentally ill when he committed the crime or whether the death sentence is appropriate. Since 2000, those decisions have all been upheld by local, state and federal courts when asked to review them. In May 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Overstreet’s request for judicial review on his case and sentence, ending that line of appeal.
The hearings don’t take into account Overstreet’s mental state at the time of the murder, either. During the trial, three doctors examined Overstreet, with diagnoses including paranoid schizophrenia, schizotypal personality disorder and paranoid schizoaffective disorder. He was found guilty at trial, and his mental issues were not a factor in the decision. The judge will need to determine only whether he is competent to understand the punishment now.
Criteria for execution
The new hearings, which were ordered by the Indiana Supreme Court and start Tuesday in St. Joseph County Superior Court, are one of the final legal maneuvers available to try to stop the execution.
After a decision is made, both sides could choose to appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court and federal courts again. After those appeals, the final option is a request to the governor, Overstreet’s attorney Steve Schutte said.
“Our argument is that Dean does not have the capacity because of his mental illness. Dean has schizophrenia,” Schutte said. “Does his schizophrenia leave him with delusions that prevent him from having a rational understanding of what it means to be executed? Yes, absolutely.”
In order to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court says people must meet two criteria. They must be able to understand both why they were sentenced and the meaning of the punishment, Schutte said.
His attorneys argue that due to schizophrenia, Overstreet is incapable of understanding the severity and outcome of the death penalty, Schutte said. That’s the conclusion a psychiatrist came to in a review in early 2013. After reviewing that new evaluation in fall 2013, the Indiana Supreme Court determined there was enough merit in the argument to launch the new hearings.
The Indiana Attorney General’s Office will argue that Overstreet still has the legally-required understanding to be executed for Eckart’s murder, spokesman Bryan Corbin said. The attorney general’s office declined to discuss any further details about the case, since it is ongoing, Corbin said.
Ruling by Dec. 5
Both sides will make their argument by providing testimony from long lists of doctors and mental health providers who have interacted with Overstreet.
Dr. Rahn Bailey will be a primary witness for Overstreet, since it was his recent evaluation that caused the high court to order the new hearing. But Bailey isn’t the only doctor who will be able to testify to Overstreet’s chronic schizophrenia, which causes visual and auditory hallucinations and difficulty separating reality from delusion, Schutte said. Schutte’s witness list includes multiple doctors and staff from Corizon and Prison Health Services, which provide mental health treatment to inmates in state prisons, he said.
“It’s not just our expert to whom Dean has been saying these things,” Schutte said.
The deputy attorneys general have their own list of doctors as well as witnesses who will prove the authenticity of documents and files regarding Overstreet’s behavior. Those items include audio from phone calls made by Overstreet, emails he sent, prison records regarding his daily activity and letters he’s written and mailed while being on death row, according to the state’s witness and exhibit list.
The hearing will take up to four days, and the judge will not immediately make a decision. Attorneys from both sides will have until the end of October to submit written closing statements, Schutte said. In those documents, attorneys will summarize the points they think they proved during the hearing, cite appropriate case laws to support those points and a make a recommendation as to why the judge should agree with their position, he said.
Miller has until Dec. 5 to issue her ruling on the case.