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March 19, 1984

EDWARD BEESLEY, Petitioner, against HAROLD J. SMITH, Warden, Attica Correctional Facility, Respondent.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: LASKER


Edward Beesley petitions for a writ of habeas corpus to set aside a judgment rendered July 17, 1967 by which he was convicted, upon a plea of guilty, of manslaughter in the first degree, under New York Penal Law ยง 1050. *fn1" Beesley was sentenced to an indeterminate term between ten and seventeen and one-half years. He is now on parole after having served fifteen years of his sentence.

 Beesley alleges that he was not legally competent to enter the 1967 plea. He contends that his conviction was unlawful because the trial judge failed to order a competency hearing sua sponte before accepting the plea or before imposing sentence. Beesley also argues that his alleged incompetence at the time of the plea itself renders the conviction unlawful. The petition is denied.


 On April 7, 1967, Beesley fatally shot Arthur Hayes and wounded Raymond DeCoste. Earlier that morning he had purchased a rifle and ammunition, then went home to his apartment at 349 West 85th Street and began to shoot at pigeons flying outside the window of his apartment on the sixth floor. *fn2" Beesley claims that the two men were shot when he aimed and shot at pigeons on the streetn. *fn3" Following his arrest, Beesley described the events of the shootings when interviewed by Assistant District Attorney Gerald Ryan. An indictment was filed on April 27, 1967 charging petitioner with murder in the first degree and attempted murder in the first degree.

 On June 22, 1967 New York Supreme Court Justice Mitchell Schweitzer accepted a plea of guilty to the reduced charge of manslaughter in the first degree. On July 17, 1967 Justice Schweitzer sentenced petitioner to the term ten to seventeen and one-half years.

 Before sentencing, Dr. Matthew Levine, Senior Psychiatrist and Dr. Emanual Messinger, Psychiatrist-in-Charge at Bellevue evaluated petitioner as being "without psychosis." *fn4" The evaluation stated that

 "[t]hroughout the [mental examination] interview he was at ease and answered questions relevantly and was quite spontaneous. He showed a friendly attitude toward the examiner. There were no abnormalities in his thought processes elicited."

 On July 28, 1967 petitioner was evaluated at Sing Sing Prison. The evaluation indicated that petitioner was of average intelligence and did not mention the existence of any mental disorder although space was provided on the form for comments regarding mental disorder. *fn5"

 On September 9, 1967 petitioner was examined for a "psychiatric classification report" by Dr. Paul Agnew at Clinton Prison. In this report petitioner was disagnosed as being "without psychosis" and as "evidenc[ing] no signs or symptoms requiring psychiatric treatment at this time." *fn6"

 Several weeks later, following an incident in the prison yard in which Beesley had attempted to lift a large rock and had explained to prison guards that he was lifting the rock in order to get exercise, Dr. Agnew diagnosed petitioner as paranoid schizophrenic and recommended that he be transferred to Dannemora State Hospital for treatment. *fn7" In the psychiatric examination petitioner told Dr. Agnew that he was "depressed around a big crowd", that he felt the other prisoners were out to get him, and that he in fact heard voices saying "we're going to get him." Dr. Agnew did not express an opinion in this report as to whether petitioner was competent or incompetent in June or July 1967.

 On November 8, 1967, on admission to Dannemora State Hospital, petitioner was diagnosed as suffering from "schizophrenia, paranoid type." He was similarly diagnosed on numerous other occasions between November 1967 and September 1981. *fn8" Over these years petitioner was continuously in and out of state mental facilities, frequently saw prison or hospital psychiatrists, and was periodically prescribed psychotropic drugs. He suffered periodically from delusions and from auditory and visual hallucinations. During the period some of the psychiatrists who examined Beesley expressed the opinion that he might have been feigning symptoms in order to avoid placement in the general prison population or to obtain drugs. *fn9"


 Beesley did not appeal his conviction. In April, 1970, while committed to Dannemora State Hospital, he petitioned for a writ of error coram nobis in which he claimed, inter alia, that he had not received a competency hearing. Justice Schweitzer denied the petition under the authority of People v. Booth, 17 N.Y.2d 681, 269 N.Y.S.2d 457, 216 N.E.2d 615 (1966), which holds that a petitioner confined to a mental institution is incompetent to petition for a writ of error coram nobis until he is adjudged mentally competent. The petition was denied without prejudice to its renewal because petitioner was then confined to Dannemora State Hospital. Renewal petitions for a writ of coram nobis filed in April 1971, ...

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