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Brown v. Warden

decided: June 23, 1982.

LESTER PAUL BROWN, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
WARDEN, GREAT MEADOW CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE



Appeal from an order and judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Charles P. Sifton, J., denying appellant's application for a writ of habeas corpus and dismissing his petition.

Kearse and Pierce, Circuit Judges, and Pierce N. Leval, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Pierce

PIERCE, Circuit Judge:

In the absence of any indications to the contrary, a defendant charged with criminal behavior is presumed to be mentally competent to stand trial. However, once a defendant's competency has been called into question, either by the defendant or the prosecution expressly raising the issue, or through the presence of "warning signals" which cause the court to raise the question sua sponte, the burden is placed on the prosecution to prove that the defendant is mentally competent to stand trial.*fn1 In this petition for a writ of habeas corpus the petitioner-appellant contends that the quantum of proof -- "by a preponderance of the evidence" -- by which the New York State courts required the prosecution to prove his mental competency to stand trial, was constitutionally insufficient. He contends that, once the issue is raised, due process requires that before proceeding to trial the prosecution must establish a defendant's competency to stand trial by "a higher standard than preponderance of the evidence." (Appellant's Brief at 16). In the court below, Judge Sifton held that the New York State requirement that the prosecution prove a defendant's mental competency to stand trial by a preponderance of the evidence satisfied due process. We affirm.

Facts

On October 6, 1971, appellant Brown shot and killed Angelo Lopez at the request of his codefendants, who paid him $200 cash, and promised to pay him an additional $2,000 after the killing, but did not do so. Brown was arrested for his crime within one week after its commission.

Appellant, who had a long history of mental illness and institutionalization, received several court-ordered psychiatric examinations while in custody following his arrest. Appellant was examined at Kings County Hospital on October 15, and October 20, 1971, and the psychiatrists concluded that he was mentally competent to stand trial. He was again examined at Kings County Hospital in November 1972. At that time a psychiatric report was prepared which reflected both the examinations performed in Kings County Hospital and a review of appellant's psychiatric records. Again, the judgment of the examining doctors was that appellant was mentally competent to stand trial. Finally, on April 6, 1973, appellant was evaluated, at the Kings County courthouse, by two court-appointed psychiatrists, Doctors Klaf and Vrejan. These doctors also found that appellant was mentally competent to stand trial.

Appellant's trial counsel moved, pursuant to New York Criminal Procedure Law § 730.30(2), to controvert the psychiatrists' determination that defendant was competent to stand trial. A hearing on that motion was held before Justice Michael Kern in the New York State Supreme Court, Kings County, on May 31, 1973. Dr. Klaf testified as a prosecution witness that appellant was a chronically schizophrenic individual, but that he was in a state of remission at the time of his examination on April 6, 1973. Although Dr. Klaf had not re-examined appellant during the intervening 7 -1/2 weeks, he stated that it was "very unlikely" that appellant would have reverted to a psychotic state in the interim, since, in his opinion, it generally takes three months for a person to decompensate. Appellant's counsel cross-examined Dr. Klaf, but offered no independent evidence on the issue of appellant's competency to stand trial. At the close of Dr. Klaf's testimony, Justice Kern found that Brown was competent to stand trial and scheduled the trial to commence on June 4, 1973.

On the scheduled trial date, after the jury was selected and sworn and both the prosecutor and defense counsel had made opening statements, appellant moved to withdraw his plea of not guilty and to enter a plea of guilty to the crime of murder in the second degree. After a hearing, appellant's guilty plea was accepted by the court. Subsequently, on September 13, 1973, Brown was sentenced to imprisonment for an indeterminate term of fifteen years to life.

It appears that in November 1973, shortly after appellant arrived at Great Meadow Correctional Institution, he was placed in medical isolation and was found to be mentally ill by two court-appointed psychiatrists. As a result, on November 19, 1973, Brown was certified to Matteawan state hospital by a judge of the New York State Supreme Court, Washington County. In April 1974, the order of commitment was reviewed and continued for one year. Brown remained at Matteawan until April 1975, when he was returned to Great Meadow Correctional Institution.

On December 29, 1975, appellant moved in the New York State courts to vacate his guilty plea, claiming that at the time it was entered he was not only mentally incompetent, but also incapacitated due to the ingestion of prescribed drugs. The motion was denied without a hearing by Supreme Court Justice John R. Starkey in an order dated May 25, 1976. Permission to appeal to the Appellate Division, Second Department, was granted, and by order dated December 4, 1978 the case was remanded to Justice Starkey with directions to make findings of fact and conclusions of law. Pursuant to this order Justice Starkey held a brief hearing, made oral findings, and again denied appellant's motion. This decision was affirmed by the Appellate Division on June 4, 1979. On July 3, 1979, leave to appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals was denied.

On July 1, 1980, appellant filed the petition herein for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Appellant claims therein that the state failed to properly establish his competency to stand trial; that New York's use of the preponderance of the evidence standard in proving competency to stand trial; that New York's use of the preponderance of the evidence standard in proving competency to stand trial violated his constitutional right to due process; and that his plea of guilty was invalid since he was under the influence of incapacitating drugs and was not adequately apprised of the rights that he was waiving by so pleading -- specifically that at trial the prosecution would be required to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that a jury verdict of guilty must be unanimous. On May 22, 1981, Judge Sifton conducted a hearing on appellant's claim that his plea was entered while under the influence of drugs which deprived him of his ability to make a rational and voluntary decision to plead guilty. In a memorandum opinion and order dated September 17, 1981, Judge Sifton denied appellant's application for habeas corpus relief. He subsequently granted Brown's motion for a certificate of probable cause, and Brown has appealed.

Competency to Stand Trial

The standard to be used in deciding whether a defendant is competent to stand trial is whether he "'has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding -- and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.'" Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 172, 43 L. Ed. 2d 103, 95 S. Ct. 896 (1975) ...


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