- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) - The mental health of a northwestern Indiana man charged with strangling two women and suspected of killing five others could complicate the case but shouldn’t prevent the state from seeking the death penalty, according to Indiana law experts.

Prosecutors have indicated that they plan to seek the death penalty against Darren Vann, 43, of Gary. He is charged with murder in the deaths of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy of Gary and 35-year-old Anith Jones of Merrillville. Police say Hardy’s body was found at a Hammond motel on Oct. 17, and Vann led investigators to the other bodies.

Vann has waived his right to be present during future hearings, which Joseph Hoffmann, a law professor at Indiana University Maurer Law School, said is unusual. He told The Times of Munster (https://bit.ly/14dfpTK ) that Vann’s absence could be cited as a reason he isn’t competent to stand trial, and that such cases are difficult for judges.

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

Andrea Lyon, dean of Valparaiso University Law School, noted that the state could still seek the death penalty even if records show Vann has a history of mental illness. She said defense attorneys could argue that Vann isn’t fit for trial or claim insanity, but that it’s difficult to prove. She also noted that if Vann is found competent and convicted, his mental health history could be cited as jurors decide on a sentence.

But 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. 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.

“There has not been much clarity from the Supreme Court about how to apply that standard,” he said.

A trial date for Vann has not been set, but his next court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 13.

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Information from: The Times, https://www.thetimesonline.com

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