Indiana News

Death sentence canceled in Evansville family killings

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) – A federal appeals court has ordered the conviction and death sentence set aside for an Evansville man convicted of killing his estranged wife and their two children 14 years ago.

Paul McManus was forced to appear before a jury in a “drug-induced stupor” in violation of federal case law, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling late Tuesday in which it sent McManus’ case back to a lower court with instructions to grant his petition for release unless the state seeks a new trial.

Shortly after his trial began, McManus began having severe panic attacks requiring hospital emergency room visits, the Evansville Courier & Press reported.

He was treated with psychological medications throughout the trial, including one known to impair memory, as well as an opiate-derived painkiller.

“The powerful effect of the medications alone created substantial doubt about McManus’s mental fitness for trial, but the judge never ordered a competency evaluation,” the appeals court ruled.

The panel of three court judges concluded that state courts did not properly consider federal standards for determining a defendant’s competency when considering McManus’ highly medicated condition.

McManus was sentenced to death in 2002 after being convicted of fatally shooting his estranged wife, Melissa, 29, and their two children, Lindsey, 8, and Shelby, 23 months on Feb. 26, 2001.

During his trial, the shootings were not contested but a jury rejected McManus’ mental illness defense.

After exhausting his state appeals and being denied an appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court, McManus petitioned a federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus, which is a request to release him from prison and set aside his conviction and sentence on constitutional grounds.

U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt denied all six grounds for appeal cited by McManus’ attorneys, including a claim that his mental disability meant he could not be executed.

“Regardless of what caused the attacks, the drugs administered to curtail them clearly affected McManus’s cognition during trial,” the appeals court ruled.

In a 2002 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing mentally disabled people violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office, which represented prosecutors in the appeals, said the appeals court rejected McManus’ claim that he was so mentally disabled it makes him ineligible for the death penalty.

“The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the opinion and will determine next steps by the appropriate deadlines in consultation with the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor’s Office. Among its options, the Attorney General’s Office may ask the 7th Circuit to reconsider its decision and ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision,” office spokesman Bryan Corbin said in an email.

McManus was separated from his wife at the time of the slayings. During the weeks before they occurred, he spoke about suicide and killing his family.

On the morning of Feb. 26, 2001, McManus’ wife served him with divorce papers. That same day, he bought ammunition at a gun store and retrieved a handgun from his brother’s house.

After the shootings, McManus jumped from a bridge into the Ohio River in an apparent suicide attempt, but was pulled out by rescuers.