Divided 7th Circuit Upholds Death Sentence

     CHICAGO (CN) – An Indiana man’s death sentence for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of an eighteen-year-old female college student can go forward, the 7th Circuit ruled.



     Kelley Eckart, a student at Franklin College, disappeared while on her way home from her job at Walmart. Her body was found four days later. She had been raped and strangled to death.
     Michael Dean Overstreet was arrested, charged, and convicted of Eckart’s murder.
     He claimed to have no memory of his whereabouts or actions at the time of the murder. DNA evidence, cloth fibers, and his brother’s testimony all tied Overstreet to the crime.
     Despite testimony that he suffered some degree of mental impairment, an Indiana jury recommended a death sentence, which Judge Cynthia Emkes imposed. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed Overstreet’s conviction and sentence in a 5-0 vote.
     Overstreet sought federal relief, raising several evidentiary challenges as well as ineffective assistance of counsel. The 7th Circuit, splitting 2-1, rejected all of his claims.
     The judges divided over whether defense attorneys had failed to adequately present evidence of Overstreet’s mental impairment at trial.
     Three mental health professionals analyzed Overstreet, each noting schizophrenic symptoms. Defense attorneys called Dr. Eric Engum who testified that Overstreet suffered from “schizotypal personality disorder” which he told the jury was “among the most severe of the personality disorders.”
     On appeal, Overstreet claimed that the decision to only call Engum was unreasonable, saying that another of his evaluating doctors, Robert Smith, would have testified that Overstreet’s condition qualified as schizophrenia, a more severe diagnosis.
     Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook found no error.
     Easterbrook largely deferred to the Indiana Supreme Court’s determination that the jury would not have appreciated “the subtle and nuanced distinction between a schizoaffective disorder and a schizotypal personality disorder.”
     “If five appellate judges, after full briefing, didn’t see the difference between Engum’s approach and Smith’s, it is unlikely that a lay jury would have done so,” he wrote.
     In an impassioned dissent, Judge Diane Wood rejected the majority’s reasoning.
     “No one who has followed the law of federal post-conviction relief for state prisoners since 1996, when the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) went into effect, is under the impression that this is a readily available remedy. … Success in obtaining relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 sometimes seems just as difficult as the rich man’s quest to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, compared in the Bible to a camel’s passing through the eye of a needle,” her dissent began.
     Despite this austere backdrop, Overstreet should be able to obtain relief under the statute.
     “In my view, something far more serious and sinister than a simple semantic debate over what Overstreet’s mental illness should be labeled tainted his sentencing hearing,” she wrote.
     “As my colleagues acknowledge in a profound understatement, ‘Overstreet has mental problems.’ … It was therefore critical at the sentencing stage of his murder trial to place before the jury an accurate picture of the severity of his condition.”
     By calling Dr. Engum, Wood reasoned, defense counsel acted unreasonably by failing to understand that his diagnosis presented the most limited view of Overstreet’s condition.
     “Schizophrenia and schizotypal disorder are two distinct diseases, with different symptoms and presentations and different levels of severity. Overstreet’s trial lawyers missed this critical difference,” Wood wrote.
     “Overstreet’s lawyers handled the expert testimony at sentencing as they did, not because they were making a strategic decision, but because they were ignorant-they simply did not understand the evidence before them. Ignorance is the antithesis of strategy. We thus have no reason to defer to their actions.”
     She concluded, “A capital jury cannot make its decision with only half of the story before it, or worse, with objectively inaccurate information.”

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