March 27, 2008

Two major competency cases in court

Self-representation and execution at issue
  • Should a higher level of competency be required for being one's own lawyer than for standing trial with a real lawyer?
  • How competent must someone be in order for the state to kill him?
Those two issues were in court yesterday in separate but somewhat related cases, one before the U.S. Supreme Court and the other in a widely awaited Texas appellate court ruling.

Competency to represent oneself

Although it was eclipsed by the OJ trial happening at the same time in Los Angeles, some readers may recall the farcical spectacle of Colin Ferguson's trial. Ferguson was the delusional man who opened fire on the Long Island Railroad, killing six people and wounding 19 more. After firing his prominent attorneys, he represented himself and presented a bizarre, delusionally based defense. He was found guilty, naturally, and received six consecutive life terms.

The Ferguson spectacle was enabled by the high court's 1993 opinion in Godinez v. Moran. Tom Moran was a severely depressed, suicidal defendant who waived the right to an attorney in a double murder case, pled guilty without presenting any evidence, and was promptly sentenced to die. The Supreme Court held that the same low standard of competency exists for all criminal proceedings.

Proponents of allowing mentally ill defendants to represent themselves despite questionable understanding and judgment cite the Sixth Amendment's right to self-representation. Legal scholar Michael Perlin, who just published an excellent book on competency, calls this argument a "pretextual" rationalization.

The competing positions were at the forefront of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday in the case of Indiana v. Edwards. The case involves Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic man whom a trial judge ruled was competent to stand trial for a robbery-shooting but incompetent to represent himself.

The state of Indiana argued before the high court yesterday that allowing states to set their own, higher standards for self-representation ensures both fairness for accused individuals and the dignity of the courts.

Edwards' attorney countered that "the expressed premise of the Sixth Amendment and of our adversarial system generally is that the defense belongs to the accused and not to the state."

The high court justices were divided along predictable lines. Justice Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy seemed concerned about people ending up in prison because they were too disturbed to represent their best interests at trial. But Justice Antonin Scalia said that's just too bad for them – if a defendant makes a poor choice, it is "his own fault."

A ruling is expected within the next few months.

Competency to be executed

The legal standard is much lower for competency to be executed. If you've got a basic understanding that you committed a crime and the state is going to kill you for it, you're good to go (to the Pearly Gates, that is).

That's the "Ford standard" set in the 1986 case of Ford vs. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court ruled that executing a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Last year, the highly polarized Supreme Court declined to clarify the somewhat vague Ford standard, issuing a 5-4 opinion on narrow procedural grounds in the closely watched Panetti v. Quarterman case (see my previous blog posts here and here; the opinion is here).

Yesterday, a Texas court responded by affirming convicted killer Scott Panetti's competence to die. Indeed, said the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, "if any mentally ill person is competent to be executed for his crimes, this record establishes it is Scott Panetti."

Panetti, who killed his estranged wife's parents, was found competent to stand trial after two jury trials on that issue. Unlike Ahmad Ewards, he was allowed to represent himself at his 1995 murder trial despite being floridly psychotic and delusional - and he's been regretting it ever since. During his trial, he rambled insanely and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and other dead people.

"The record of Panetti's competency hearings and trial is not pretty," the appellate court conceded. "For better or worse, however, the issues of Panetti's competence to stand trial and his insanity defense have been tried, appealed, reviewed in state and federal habeas proceedings, and conclusively put to rest. Panetti is not permitted to relitigate these arguments in his proceedings under Ford."

The court’s 62-page opinion is interesting reading. It reviews the facts of the case, the exhaustive history of appeals, and the expert witness testimony of numerous well-regarded forensic experts called by both sides. The case even involved expert testimony by a forensic psychiatrist and neurologist, Dr. Priscilla Ray, on the science behind competency opinions, that is, "the extent to which psychiatric science can assist the Court in assessing competence to be executed, particularly with regard to the concept of rational understanding."

In discussing Panetti's "rational understanding" of his situation, the court also contemplated evidence suggesting that Panetti was exaggerating his schizophrenic disorder to avoid the needle. Yesterday's opinion cited the results of widely used tests of malingering, including the Structured Inventory of Reported Symptoms (SIRS) and Green's Word Memory Test (WMT).

At the end of the day, after reviewing all of the evidence, the Court held:

"Panetti is seriously mentally ill…. While the extent to which Panetti has been manipulating or exaggerating his symptoms is unclear, it is not seriously disputable that Panetti suffers from paranoid delusions of some type… However, it is equally apparent … that [his] delusions do not prevent him from having both a factual and rational understanding that he committed [the] murders, was tried and convicted, and is sentenced to die for them…. Panetti was mentally ill when he committed his crime and continues to be mentally ill today. However, he has both a factual and rational understanding of his crime, his impending death, and the causal retributive connection between the two."
The ruling can be found HERE. National Public Radio has coverage and commentary here. A 28-minute video, "Executing the Insane: The Case of Scott Panetti," is available here. An essay by Yale scholar Steven Erickson entitled "Minding Moral Responsibility," which discusses the Panetti case, is available here. The Indianapolis Star has more coverage of Indiana v. Edwards.

Hat tip: Steven Erickson

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