Saturday, May 22, 2010

Case o' The Week: Maxwell, Mental Illness, & Murder - Sua Sponte Competency Evals

Maxwell, mental illness, and murder. Makes for a catchy Beatles' tune, and for a great habeas decision. Maxwell v. Roe, __ F.3d __, 2010 WL 1997700 (9th Cir. May 20, 2010), decision available here.

Players: Decision by Judge Paez, joined by Judges Pregerson and Noonan.

Facts: Maxwell and three armed men confronted and killed a car thief. Id. at *1. Defense counsel expressed doubts about his client’s competency, so before trial a judge had five shrinks conduct competency evaluations. Id. Four shrinks found Maxwell to be feigning or embellishing mental illness, while the fifth found him incompetent. Id.

The court found him competent; a year later he went to trial. Id.

During the trial defense counsel said Maxwell’s condition was worsening. Before trial even started the court had Maxwell removed for dangerous and erratic behavior. Id. at *2. Reviewing the earlier psych reports, the trial judge concluded Maxwell was feigning – the trial continued. Id.

Maxwell then tried to commit suicide with a razor blade; the trial judge concluded Maxwell was feigning – the trial continued. Id.

With Maxwell off on a psych hold, the trial continued in his absence and a jury that never saw the defendant convicted him of first degree murder. Id. He was sentenced to 25 years to life. (A co-D was acquitted, another convicted of second-degree murder). Id.

The California appellate court and Supreme Court denied his appeals and habeas petitions. Id. Maxwell sought federal habeas relief; the district court denied the petition. Id.

Issue(s): “Maxwell argues that at the time of his . . . state court trial for first degree murder he was incompetent to stand trial and that the state court denied him due process in failing to hold, sua sponte, a competency hearing. At the time of trial, Maxwell had a history of mental illness, frequently refused to take his prescribed antipsychotic medications, was unable to verbally or physically control himself in the courtroom, and exhibited increasingly paranoid and psychotic behavior that impaired his communication with defense counsel and reasoning regarding his defense. Furthermore, during the trial, Maxwell attempted suicide and spent a substantial portion of the trial involuntarily committed to a hospital psychiatric ward. Despite these circumstances, the trial judge never doubted Maxwell’s competence.” Id. at *1.

Held: “Because we conclude that the state appellate court's decision to affirm the trial court's finding that Maxwell was not entitled to a hearing on his competence was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence known by the trial judge at the time of trial and an unreasonable application of federal law as established by Drope, and Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966), we reverse and remand.” Id.

Of Note: The heart of Maxwell is the principle that a defendant has “a constitutional due process right not to be tried or convicted while incompetent to stand trial.” Id. The real value of Maxwell, however, is that a trial court must be an active player in guaranteeing that right. It doesn’t matter that defense counsel didn’t ask for a hearing – “where the evidence raises a bone fide doubt as a defendant’s competence to stand trial, a trial judge has an independent duty to conduct a competency hearing on his own motion.” Id. at *10 (internal quotations and citation omitted) (emphasis in original). These holdings have particular punch for a “normal” trial case, because they arise out of the very deferential AEDPA standards required of a federal habeas petition.

How to Use: After Maxwell a smart trial judge will always err on the side of caution and have a competency hearing despite defense counsel’s silence. What if defense counsel doesn’t want a competency hearing, though? Maxwell sharpens the sticky wicket defense counsel face when trying to steer a (marginally) competent client through criminal proceedings to try to snag a good deal or minimize exposure. This scenario is the Kobayashi Maru for federal defense counsel – and Maxwell, inadvertently, makes this delicate dance even more difficult.

For Further Reading: For an interesting discussion of these condundrums, see Josephine Ross, Autonomy Versus a Client’s Best Interests: The Defense Lawyer’s Dilemma When Mentally Ill Clients Seek to Control Their Defense, 35 Am. Crim. Law Report. 1343 (Summer 1998), on Westlaw at 35 AMCRLR 1343.

Image of the Beatles from

Steven Kalar, Senior Litigator N.D. Cal. FPD. Website at


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Anonymous psychiatry emr said...

The exhibited increasingly paranoid and psychotic behavior that impaired his communication with defense counsel and reasoning regarding his defense is really a good subject to explore. I enjoyed reading this blog so informative.


Monday, June 21, 2010 6:29:00 PM  

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