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Overstreet challenges execution over competency

FRANKLIN, Ind. – Attorneys for a convicted killer who has spent nearly 15 years awaiting execution for the death of a Franklin College freshman have launched what could be his last legal challenge by questioning whether he’s competent to be put to death.

Michael Dean Overstreet was convicted in 2000 of raping and killing Kelly Eckart, who was abducted three years earlier while heading home from her night shift job at a Wal-Mart.

Overstreet has appealed his sentence unsuccessfully to state and federal courts on grounds including the effectiveness of his trial attorneys, his mental state at the time of the crime and procedural decisions at trial. But the competency challenge is new and a rare strategy, legal experts say.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from executing a person who is incompetent. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that includes people “who are unaware of the punishment that they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it,” an Indiana Supreme Court order issued Sept. 3 notes.

Criminal defendants often raise incompetence or insanity defenses during trials, but it’s less common at sentencing, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/1nJmuRR ).

Public defender Steven Schutte, who has represented Overstreet in state appeals since 2005, said the standard of proof for a competency challenge “is very exacting and precise.”

“I’ve been doing these cases for 20 years, and it is not normal for competency to be raised,” Schutte said. “Dean is the first guy, in my experience, that I thought was not able to understand what’s going on.”

Whether the appeal will succeed remains to be seen. The state Supreme Court sent the case back to Johnson Superior Court Judge Cynthia S. Emkes, who sentenced Overstreet to death 14 years ago, to determine whether he is competent to be executed. She was initially instructed to submit a report by March 3, but that deadline has been extended.

Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the Indiana attorney general’s office, said the state believes the death sentence should be upheld.

A national death penalty opponent calls the issue of competency “one of the most disturbing aspects of the death penalty.”

Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the U.S. Supreme Court has left the process for determining competency to the states. That’s resulted in executions of prisoners she and others believe were incompetent in other states, she said.

“We are concerned that states do not have adequate procedures to make that determination,” she said. “I am hoping that the Indiana officials and courts take a close look at that issue.”

Overstreet is one of 13 inmates on Death Row in Indiana, which has not executed an inmate since Dec. 11, 2009. Matthew Wrinkles, 49, was put to death by lethal injection that day for the 1994 killings of his wife, her brother and sister-in-law in Evansville.

Since 1900, Indiana has executed 90 men, including 20 after the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

Connie Sutton, Eckart’s mother, said it’s time to bring the case to a close so her daughter can finally be at peace.

“Kelly didn’t get 14 years to plead for her life,” she said.

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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