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Monday, January 05, 2015

Ind. Courts - "Darren Vann's mental health an issue in hearings"

Elvia Malagon had a long story in the Jan. 3rd NWI Times on Darren Vann's mental health and potential death penalty changes. Vann allegedly has confessed to multiple killings. Some quotes:

[E]ven if records show Vann has a history of mental illness, the state can still seek the death penalty, said Andrea Lyon, dean of Valparaiso University Law School.

Indiana law states a defendant with mental retardation can be exempt from the death penalty. Lyon said mental illness, though, is legally different from mental retardation as defined in the statute.

Lyon said the defense could argue Vann isn't fit for trial or claim insanity. However, Lyon said it's difficult to prove a defendant is insane and not fit for trial. She said the bar is low to determine if someone is fit for trial.

During Vann's last court hearing, he waived his right to be present during future court hearings unless he is required to attend.

"I'll probably leave it in my attorneys' hands most of the times," Vann said in court.

If Vann is found competent and convicted, information about his mental health could be presented during the second phase of a trial, Lyon said. The second phase is where jurors hear evidence about why the death penalty should be sought as punishment.

Joel Schumm, a law professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, said defense attorneys can present information about a defendant's childhood, mental illness or military service as mitigating evidence for why a defendant should not receive the death penalty.

Even if a defendant is found to have mental health problems, the jury and court can decide aggravating factors in the case outweigh evidence about mental illness.

That was the case for Joseph E. Corcoran, 39, who is one of Indiana's 14 death row inmates. According to court records, experts determined Corcoran had a personality disorder. He was convicted of killing four people July 26, 1997, in Allen County.

The Indiana Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 2002, though Corcoran is still appealing his sentence. Justice Robert Rucker, a Gary native, wrote a dissenting opinion stating the rationale for excluding executions of mentally retarded defendants is as compelling as reasons for why seriously mentally ill defendants should be excluded from capital punishment.

"As a society, we have always treated those with mental illness differently from those without," Rucker stated. "In the interest of human dignity, we must continue to do so ... I believe that executing a convict with a severe mental illness is a cruel and unusual punishment."

If Vann is convicted and given the death penalty, Hoffmann said any issues surrounding mental illness could again arise by defense attorneys arguing against a defendant's competency for execution.

Hoffmann said the federal standard calls for a death row inmate to understand not only what is being done but also why he or she is receiving the death penalty. He said the legal community has recently debated what exactly the standard means.

"Is it enough if he understands the words or does he have to appreciate it," Hoffmann said. "There has not been much clarity from the Supreme Court [of the United States] about how to apply that standard."

The uncertainty surrounding the standard is one reason why an execution was recently put on hold in Texas, Hoffmann said.

Joseph Hoffmann, the Harry Pratter Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer Law School, said it's unusual for a defendant to choose not to be present during hearings. He said Vann's absence can later be argued as a reason for why Vann is not competent to stand trial.

"It's sort of an indication that there was something wrong," Hoffmann said.

Cases such as Vann's are difficult for presiding judges, he said.

"How do you give that person a fair trial while also respecting his rights? That's a challenge."

Hoffmann said the legal standard for competency boils down to if a defendant understands what is going on in the courtroom and if he or she can provide information to the defense attorney.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 5, 2015 03:58 PM
Posted to Indiana Courts