Hearings this week to determine if the man convicted of raping and murdering a Franklin College student is mentally fit to be executed will set a legal standard in Indiana.
A state judge had never conducted a hearing to determine if a person is competent to be executed until this week, when Michael Dean Overstreet’s case was considered in a South Bend court. The judge will consider whether Overstreet’s delusions prevent him from understanding his execution.
Both the hearings and decision will set a precedent in the state for how these types of cases are handled.
In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a court must have a hearing to determine whether an inmate sentenced to death was insane and therefore couldn’t be executed. That decision was made after the governor of Florida set an execution date for a mentally ill man. The governor had reviewed recommendations of doctors, but the decision did not go through a court.
In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court said that as part of those competency hearings, death row inmates need to have a rational understanding of why they are being executed and not just be aware of it. Overstreet’s attorneys cited that decision in persuading the Indiana Supreme Court to schedule a hearing to determine if he is fit for execution, his attorney Steve Schutte said.
The Indiana Supreme Court had ordered a hearing to determine if Norman Timberlake, who was on death row for killing a police officer, was competent to be executed. The court stopped his execution in January 2007 in order to wait for the decision in a federal case, since it possibly could set new rules to follow for executions, according to the decision written by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.
The federal case did set new rules, but Timberlake died of natural causes in prison before the state high court could consider his request for a hearing regarding his competency, Indiana Attorney General’s Office spokesman Bryan Corbin said.
No hearings were requested again until Overstreet, Schutte said.
The specific type of hearing to decide whether an inmate is competent to be executed is rare. Indiana has fewer than 15 people on death row. And in order to request a competency hearing for an execution, attorneys have to be able to show evidence of a serious mental illness.
“The Indiana Supreme Court hadn’t been asked to hear a case like this,” Schutte said. “It’s a very demanding standard.”
Determining whether a person is competent to be executed is similar to hearings to determine if someone is competent to stand trial, Corbin said. In both types of cases, the defendant is assumed to be competent unless his attorneys can prove otherwise, he said.
“Courts conduct a thorough determination to ensure that defendants claiming mental incompetency are not malingering or fabricating symptoms,” Corbin said.
The decision made by St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Jane Woodward Miller on Overstreet’s competency will directly affect only his execution, Corbin said.
If the decision is appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court — which will likely happen by whichever side is ruled against — then the high court ruling would become a legal precedent in Indiana for similar cases. That means attorneys working on similar cases in the future could draw on facts from Overstreet’s case to help make their argument.
The Johnson County case already has shaped Indiana law. Kelly’s Law was named after Overstreet’s victim, 18-year-old Kelly Eckart. She was abducted in Franklin, raped and murdered by Overstreet. State lawmakers approved the law after Overstreet’s trial in 2000, which allows the victim’s family to read a statement after a court announces a death sentence about the impact the murder has had on the family.