Habeas – Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Habeas challenge to counsel’s performance in this capital case is limited to imposition of the death penalty, in three respects, all of which the court rejects.
1) Failure to ask the trial judge to have courtroom spectators stop displaying pictures of the victim is controlled by Casey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70 (2006) (“defendants did not have any constitutional right to such a removal order at the time of Overstreet’s trial and appeal—and no decision since Carey has created such an entitlement, let alone held that it would apply retroactively”). The court further suggests that in any event, no prejudice accrued (“No juror could have doubted that Eckart had friends and family who mourned her death. That’s the message the pictures conveyed, and in the post-conviction proceedings the state trial judge found that Overstreet had not established prejudice.”)
2) Overstreet’s undoubted mental problems didn’t render ineffective counsel’s conveyance of the prosecutor’s plea offer of life without parole, in light of a state court finding of no prejudice, because the judge would have rejected the plea under Indiana law: “A defendant who wants to plead guilty in Indiana must admit the factual basis of the plea in open court. Overstreet denies having any memory of the night when Eckart was killed and said repeatedly—to his lawyers and to the trial judge—that he could not plead guilty when he did not know himself to be guilty. This is why the state judge declared that she would not have accepted a guilty plea had Overstreet attempted to enter one.” Missouri v. Frye, 132 S. Ct. 1399, 1408–10 (2012) “holds that, to show prejudice from counsel’s failure to convey a plea offer, ‘defendants who have shown a reasonable probability they would have accepted the earlier plea offer must also show that, if the prosecution had the discretion to cancel it or if the trial court had the discretion to refuse to accept it, there is a reasonable probability neither the prosecution nor the trial court would have prevented the offer from being accepted or implemented.’ 132 S. Ct. at 1410. Here we have a finding, by the trial judge herself, that she would not have accepted a guilty plea. … The state trial judge has told us what she would have done, and why, had Overstreet attempted to plead guilty; given Frye’s definition of prejudice, that finding is dispositive.”
3) Counsel’s failure to adduce, by way of mitigation, expert testimony that Overstreet had an Axis I disorder (schizoaffective; i.e., a combination of schizophrenia and depression) wasn’t prejudicial, given the presentation of expert testimony that he had an Axis II. schizotypal personality disorder: “In this court Overstreet’s lawyers harp on the theme that an Axis I “clinical disorder” is worse than an Axis II “personality disorder” and assert the difference surely would have affected the jury. But it was not clear to the state judiciary, see 877 N.E.2d at 156, and is not clear to us, that psychiatric terminology affects juries. … Overstreet’s lawyers put on evidence that he has a serious mental abnormality and contended that he is not blameworthy. Engum and Smith agreed about Overstreet’s symptoms; they just attached different labels. Whether his condition is called ‘schizotypal personality disorder’ or schizophrenia plus depression does not change the nature of this mitigating strategy.” (Lengthy dissent on this last issue, turning largely on the “critical distinction” between Axis I “clinical” and II “personality” disorders: “Overstreet is not arguing merely about labels, but about what those labels mean: 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 ….”)