Doctors testified about comas, demons and impostors during the first day of a hearing to determine whether a death row inmate can be executed.
Michael Dean Overstreet listened to doctors and his sister give hours of testimony about his mental illness on the first of four days of hearings Tuesday. On day one, his attorneys began building the case as to why the state can’t execute him.
His red prison jumpsuit was emblazoned with the words “X ROW” in thick black lettering, and his ankles remained chained throughout the day. With his hands free in the courtroom, Overstreet sat quietly through the hearing. Whenever he needed to leave the courtroom, guards cuffed his hands, and multiple men stood around him on all sides.
Overstreet’s attorneys began presenting information to try to show he is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, which has caused him to believe he is either in a coma or already dead. Overstreet believes that being executed would release him from that state and allow him to return to normal life with his ex-wife and children.
His attorneys said the delusion is so gripping he can’t understand that the lethal injection will lead to the end of his life.
Federal law says a person on death row must be able to understand why they are being executed and what execution means. Hearings are slated through the rest of the week in South Bend. St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Jane Woodward Miller will decide, based on the hearings, whether Overstreet can legally be put to death.
Three doctors and Overstreet’s sister all testified Tuesday, detailing his long history of mental illness and struggles with worsening hallucinations and delusions.
Deputy attorneys general representing the state worked to begin poking holes in the mental evaluations of Overstreet, including how well he understands reality.
Most of their questions for doctors targeted what standards they used to determine Overstreet is not competent, how they conducted their evaluations and how much information he understands about his current life.
“There won’t be a dispute about whether Mr. Overstreet is mentally ill. The question that remains is whether that illness renders him incapable of understanding the execution,” deputy attorney general James Martin said in a brief opening statement.
Overstreet was convicted in 2000 of abducting, raping and strangling 18-year-old Kelly Eckart and sentenced to death by a Johnson County judge. Police said Eckart, a freshman at Franklin College, was abducted by Overstreet after a fender bender accident in Franklin in September 1997.
His appeals of his conviction and sentence have run out, and this week’s hearings are one of the last options left to try to stop the execution.
Attorneys spent most of the day questioning Dr. Rahn Bailey, the forensic psychiatrist whose 2013 evaluation of Overstreet helped launch the current hearings. Bailey examined Overstreet in February and May of last year and came to the conclusion that Overstreet’s schizophrenia is so severe it has detached him from a rational understanding of what execution and death mean.
“He communicated to me very clearly that after the execution he will function in a realm of life that we recognize as reality,” Bailey said. “He’d be released from the bad stuff and be able to function better after execution.”
Martin’s questions for the doctor aimed at determining how grounded in reality Overstreet is. For example, Overstreet was able to tell the doctor his name, location and correct time at the beginning of the evaluation and could understand that the state had convicted him of Eckart’s murder, although he couldn’t recall the details of the crime.
He had also made a will, chosen to be cremated and decided his ashes should be divided amongs his loved ones, actions which show he has some understanding that he will cease to live after execution, Martin said.
Overstreet can grasp factual information about his daily life but becomes highly irrational when doctors probe deeper into his understanding of the execution, Bailey said. His beliefs aren’t in a spiritual afterlife, but rather that he can be involved in his family members’ lives in a way that isn’t possible if he is executed, Bailey said.
Overstreet’s coma delusion hasn’t always been present but has become a part of his set of beliefs within at least the past three years. Dr. Robert Smith and Dr. Edmund Haskins, both of whom evaluated Overstreet in 2004 for his appeal, said he never mentioned the delusion 10 years ago.
In the early 2000s, Overstreet was mostly suffering from auditory hallucinations in which angels would tell him how to act in order to keep away demons who would try to trick him and hurt his family, Smith and Haskins said. Overstreet also was paranoid that impostors were taking the shape of people he knew and trying to trick him into doing bad things, they said.
The new delusion is likely a sign of worsening schizophrenia despite constant daily medication, Smith said.
“Delusions evolve over time. They change as life changes,” Smith said.
Doctors have increased Overstreet’s medications to levels beyond what the average patient would take, Bailey said. Overstreet was taking twice the normal dose of one anti-psychotic medication and has recently been changed to a large dose of another drug that is even more potent, Bailey said.
Despite the medication, he’s been highly paranoid for years and struggles to separate reality from delusion, his sister Shannon Richardson testified.
The last time she saw her brother was during a prison visit in 2009 and Overstreet was fixated on a person standing to his side that didn’t exist, was convinced another inmate and his family were spying on their conversation and spent a half-hour interrogating Richardson to find out if she was an impostor, she said.
“He was under the impression I was someone else trying to impersonate me,” Richardson said.
Overstreet has believed for several years that Richardson works at the prison and he sees her all the time, a mix of both hallucinations and delusion, Bailey said.
The combination of symptoms is common with schizophrenia, he said.
The last time Richardson talked to Overstreet on the phone was in 2011, when he told her that he was in a coma and needed to wake up. She tried to talk about normal topics, such as news about the family, but he would continually derail into random paranoid thoughts or questions to make sure she was real, Richardson said.
Today, Overstreet’s attorneys will call additional doctors and mental health workers from the prison who have interacted with him as they continue to try to build more evidence of the depth and severity of his schizophrenia. The hearings are expected to last the rest of the week.