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Criminal Practice – Defendant’s Competency – Sua Sponte Hearing Required

Criminal Practice – Defendant’s Competency – Sua Sponte Hearing Required

State v. Whitted. (Lawyers Weekly No. 11-07-0156, 21 pp.) (Linda Stephens, J.) Appealed from Cumberland County Superior Court. (James F. Ammons Jr., J.) N.C. App. Click here for the full text of the opinion.

Holding: Given defendant’s past history of paranoid schizophrenia and her bizarre behavior in the courtroom, the trial judge should have initiated a hearing to determine defendant’s competency to stand trial.

We remand for a retroactive competency hearing or, if the trial court determines such a hearing is not possible, a new trial.

At defendant’s first court hearing, the magistrate noted her past history of mental illness, specifically paranoid schizophrenia. Defendant also rejected a favorable pretrial plea offer, remarking that her appointed counsel worked for the state.

After opening statements, the trial court set a $75,000 cash bond. Defendant responded with an emotional outburst, telling the trial court she did not care whether she got life in prison. She also told the trial court she was guilty, stating, “That’s what you want.”

On the third day of her trial, defendant refused to return to the courtroom because she felt her rights were being violated, and she said she felt she could rely on her faith. When defendant was brought forcibly into court, handcuffed to a rolling chair after having been Tasered, she chanted loudly and sang prayers and religious imprecations, refusing to be silent or cooperate with trial proceedings.

Later, for sentencing, defendant was brought back to the courtroom strapped to a gurney, again singing, crying, screaming and mumbling as the trial court pronounced sentence.

The trial court erred in failing to institute, sua sponte, a competency hearing for defendant.

On Jan. 11, 2010, at the start of trial, defense counsel mentioned that defendant had recently undergone shoulder surgery and was taking pain medication. The trial court asked defendant and her trial counsel whether the medication was impairing her ability to understand the proceedings or her decision to reject the plea bargain being offered by the state. Both replied that it was not.

The trial court also asked defendant about her ability to read and write, and whether she understood the charges against her. However, the trial court’s inquiry was only into the effects of the pain medication defendant was taking.

More importantly, the trial court’s limited inquiry was not timely. The trial court questioned defendant about the effects of her medication on Jan. 11, 2010, but her refusal to return to the courtroom and resulting outbursts occurred two days later on Jan. 13, 2010. A defendant’s competency to stand trial is not necessarily static but can change over even brief periods of time.

We remand to the trial court for a determination of whether it can conduct a meaningful retrospective hearing on the issue of defendant’s competency at the time of her trial.

Because it is possible that, on remand, the trial court will conclude that a retrospective competency determination is still possible, and, following the resulting hearing, that defendant was competent and no new trial is required, we address defendant’s remaining issues on appeal.

Defendant refused to return to the courtroom for the habitual felon phase of her trial. The trial court had defendant brought into the courtroom handcuffed to a rolling chair, at which point she began to sing and chant and behave in a generally disruptive manner. The trial court then asked defense counsel and the prosecutor if they wished to have defendant removed, and all agreed this would be best.

However, the trial court then addressed defendant directly and asked her whether she wished to return to the holding cell. Defendant ignored the trial court’s questions twice, but after he asked a third time, she stopped chanting and replied, “Put me back where I was.”

The trial court inquired several more times to be sure that defendant understood his question and to clarify that she wanted to return to the holding cell and give up her right to be present during her trial. Defendant responded that she did.

The trial court then made a finding that defendant had voluntarily waived her right to be present at the habitual felon phase of her trial. Because the trial court did not order defendant removed from the courtroom, the requirements of G.S. § 15A-1032(b) were not triggered.

Defendant contends that the trial court violated G.S. § 15A-1011 in accepting her trial counsel’s oral waiver of her right to be present at certain points during her trial. This statute applies to a defendant’s waiver of her right to be present for entry of pleas. It is not applicable where a defendant waives her right to be present at other times during her trial.

Defendant asked to be returned to the holding cell during the habitual felon phase of her trial. Defendant also refused to return to the courtroom for guilt-phase closing arguments and for the aggravating factor phase of her trial. Because defendant voluntarily absented herself during certain portions of her trial, she waived her right to be present at those points.



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