Recently in Mental State Category

The obvious chief criticism that can be made against current Eight Amendment jurisprudence is the ambiguous nature of the "evolving standards of decency" established in Trop v. Dulles.  Besides the fact that it is not self-evident and that reasonable people can disagree widely as to what those standards are or ought to be, it remains a puzzle why some classes of offenders are categorically barred from certain punishment while others must prove their lack of culpability during sentencing.  To be sure, the Supreme Court has provided some guidance on the matter, but as I have discussed before the doctrine remains confused and unintelligible. 

The next chapter of the evolving standards journey is a proposed bill in Indiana, which would bar capital punishment for any offender who has a severe mental illness.  The proposed bill essentially requires a finding of insanity albeit with an added provision that a designated serious mental illness that impairs a defendant's ability to exercise rational judgment in relation to his conduct also qualifies for exemption from the death penalty.  The enumerated serious mental disorders, which the statute defers defining to the American Psychiatric Association, includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.     

To anyone paying attention the problems of the proposed bill are obvious. This is no more than a thinly veiled product's test for punishment that, if successfully enacted, would undoubtedly include vast numbers of defendants and substantial monies for mental health experts (who, by the way, cannot as a profession agree as to what constitutes a serious mental illness).   Moreover, it is unclear that whatever characteristics people with serious mental illnesses have that qualifies them for reduced culpability under this evolving standard should not also apply with equal force to LWOP, lengthy prison sentences  or incarceration whatsoever- a residual but fundamental problem more broadly with the evolving standards doctrine itself. 

At the end of the day the issue revealed by this latest iteration of the evolving standards of decency doctrine is that it is at war with the tenets of Lockett and the notion of individual sentencing.   On the one hand, we have a line of precedent that says juries are the ultimate arbiters of punishment decision making (Ring, Lockett) because they must make both a factual and moral determination regarding what is appropriate punishment for any individual defendant.  On the other hand we have precedent and proposed legislation that suggests that juries are untrustworthy to make those decisions.    The question that begs from modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is why do we have juries anyway? 
The U.S. Supreme Court held its conference today and took up 16 cases, 4 of which are criminal or habeas corpus cases.

Weaver v. Massachusetts, No. 16-240:  The defendant claims his lawyer was ineffective for failing to object to a closure of the courtroom during empanelment of the jury.  Violation of the right to a public trial, when considered directly, is a "structural" error that is reversible without a showing that it actually prejudiced the defendant, but an ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim requires a showing of prejudice under Strickland v. Washington.  Does IAC require a showing of prejudice when the underlying error is "structural"?  I believe Strickland is clear enough that the answer is "yes," but there is enough of a circuit split for the high court to take it up.

Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309, involves a question of whether revocation of naturalized citizenship in a criminal proceeding for a false statement during naturalization requires a showing of materiality.

McWilliams v. Dunn, No. 16-5294, involves a question regarding the degree of independence needed for appointed mental health experts under Ake v. Oklahoma.

Davila v. Davis, No. 16-6219, involves the continuing fallout from Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler.  In Coleman v. Thompson in1992, the Supreme Court limited the damage from ineffective assistance claims to prevent a never-ending spiral of every lawyer to take up a case claiming that he should be allowed to raise a new issue because the previous lawyer was ineffective in not raising it.  Coleman drew the line at direct appeal.  Ineffective assistance at trial or on direct appeal could be "cause" for raising an issue defaulted in those proceedings, but from state collateral review onward a claim would be defaulted if not raised in the proper proceeding regardless of counsel's performance.  As with other procedural default rules, a strong showing of actual innocence was an exception.

Young Adults as Juveniles

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Should 25 year olds be tried as juveniles? 

That is the title of a recent article in the New Republic that lays out the claim that because brain imaging suggests that some people's brains in their early 20s have not maximized their myelination (e.g., the white matter that insulates the neurons) then should not be punished as adults.  This is just the latest stop on the merry go 'round of using brain images to set public policy.  So let us review the problems with this line of thinking (something I've done for many years now):

1.  No one has a perfect brain.  All of us have brains that have been damaged by what may be called "life."  We don't get enough sleep, we eat poorly, we fall and hit our heads (hopefully infrequently), many of us drink alcohol or we consume excessive amounts of sugar.  And as soon as our brains finalize their myelination, they age.  There is no moral agent out there with an optimal brain.

A Denial of Due Process

Suppose a criminal defendant is on trial at a time when the law is clear that the state must prove X and Y, and if the defendant negates either he is entitled to acquittal.  He submits what he believes is conclusive evidence negating X, so he does not expend the resources to negate Y.  The jury convicts him anyway, and he appeals on the ground that the verdict is not supported by the evidence.

On appeal, it is decided that the defendant did indeed negate X, but the court changes its interpretation of the law so that Y alone is enough.  Since the defendant did not put on any case against Y, reasonably believing he didn't need to, his conviction is affirmed.

Wouldn't the defense bar, academia, and the press scream bloody murder?  Wouldn't they denounce that as fundamentally unfair?  Of course they would, and they would be right.

Yesterday the Florida Supreme Court did pretty much what I just described, but in the other direction.  It is no less unfair.

John Hinckley Released

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John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Reagan in March 1981 but was found not guilty by reason of insanity, has been ordered released.  The judge, US District Judge Paul Friedman, found that Hinckley does not pose a danger to others.  One can only hope this prediction is true.  It didn't work out so well with Wendell Callahan.

The Hinckley verdict was not well received, and proved to be the spark for tightening up the insanity defense.  That defense is now seldom tried, and it almost never works.  It's not impossible to hoodwink a jury, but it's not that easy, either. 
There doesn't seem to be a flash transcript of today's hearing in its entirety, but CNBC does have a transcript of the exchange between FBI Director James Comey and South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, both former prosecutors.  I will paste it after the break.
A variety of people on both sides of the political aisle have been pushing for reform on the mental states required for a person to be guilty of a federal criminal offense.  In federal law, more than in most states, the traditional requirement that a crime be defined as a combination of a guilty mind with a guilty act has been watered down as the administrative state has expanded.  Former Attorney General Ed Meese, a longtime friend and advisor to CJLF, has testified on this subject before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Congressman John Conyers, senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, also supports mens rea reform.

But it is not enough to be in favor of "reform" in the abstract.  Reform must be drafted into legislation, and the devil is in the details.  Searching for papers and testimony of reform supporters, I have found a lot about reform in general and very little supporting the specific language of the proposals now before Congress.

The bills as drafted seem to me to be classic cases of overreach -- the proverbial "bridge too far" resulting in failure of the mission.  The opponents have valid criticisms, ammunition handed to them by the drafters' overreach.

Postpartum psychosis defense

A 29 year-old mother researches on the internet how to poison her children.  She later mixes windshield de-icer fluid into some grape juice and serves the toxic mixture to her five-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter.  When the toxic fluid fails to kill them, she takes those two children into the bathroom and drowns them in the bathtub.  She writes a note to the father of those two children blaming him for her actions.  She had recently discovered that he fathered a child with another woman.  She then seals all of the windows in her apartment with plastic and tape and sends a text to her boyfriend (father of the children) that says, "I'm sorry the kids are gone.  I'm next." She turns on the gas from her stove, drinks the toxic grape juice, and cuts her wrists.  9-1-1 reports of a gas leak cause firefighters to discover the grave scene.  The kids are dead, but the mother survives.

Lisette Bamenga committed this horrific crime in New York four years ago.  Prosecutors charged her with two counts of murder and sought a 40-year prison sentence, claiming that she killed the children in a jealous rage after finding out about her boyfriend's infidelity.  Bamenga opted for a bench trial, and her defense attorneys argued that she suffered from postpartum psychosis and should not be held responsible for the killings.  The judge convicted Bamenga of manslaughter and sentenced her to 8 years in prison on each count to run concurrently.

Postpartum psychosis?  Would it be different if her kids were 2 years old and 5 years old instead?  At what point after the birth of a child does the postpartum psychosis defense cease to apply?  At what point does the psychotic period end, if ever?  What if the tables were turned and the father committed this crime instead?  This woman researched methods of poisoning her children on the internet.  She went to the store and bought windshield de-icer fluid.  She mixed it with juice and gave it to her unsuspecting, trusting little children.  When the poison did not kill them like she thought it would, she decided to drown them.  She took their little bodies and submerged them under water in their own bathtub until she was sure they were dead.  She was distraught over her boyfriend's affair and baby with another woman.
This case seems different from the Andrea Yates case.  In 2006, after a re-trial, Andrea Yates was found innocent by reason of insanity and sentenced to a mental hospital.  As far as I know, she remains in a mental hospital today. 
The sad fact is that two young, defenseless children are dead at the hands of the woman who gave them life.
AP reports:

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A man who acknowledged killing three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic is too mentally incompetent to continue with his criminal case, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The decision by Judge Gilbert Martinez puts the case against Robert Dear, 57, on hold until his mental competency can be restored through treatment. He will be sent to the state psychiatric hospital, and his mental health will be reviewed in August.

As he was led out of the courtroom, Dear yelled at the judge: "That's called prejudiced, filthy animal!"

The case will resume when Dear is found to be mentally capable of understanding the court proceedings and able to assist in his defense. He is charged with 179 counts, including murder and attempted murder, stemming from the Nov. 27 shooting at the Colorado Springs clinic that also left nine injured.
The U.S. Supreme Court took up once again the issue of the mental element of crime, known in legal Latin as mens reaShaw v. United States, No. 15-5991, is a case from the Ninth Circuit.  The summary of the Ninth's opinion is:

The panel affirmed a conviction for a scheme to defraud a financial institution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344(1), in a case in which the defendant used PayPal to convince banks that he was a particular bank customer and thus had authority to transfer money out of that customer's bank accounts and into a PayPal account in the defendant's control.

The panel held that for a violation of § 1344(1), the government need not prove that the defendant intended the bank to be the principal financial victim of the fraud, and that the district court therefore correctly refused jury instructions that included such a requirement.
The Question Presented, as phrased by counsel for Shaw, is:

Whether subsection (1)'s "scheme to defraud a financial institution" requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive, but also to cheat, a bank, as nine circuits have held, and as petitioner Lawrence Shaw argued here.
The sentencing appeal case is Manrique v. United States, No. 15-7250.  The unpublished opinion of the Eleventh Circuit begins:

Certiorari Denied to Joseph Edward Duncan

Joseph Edward Duncan is a serial murderer and rapist who thoroughly deserves his death sentence.  His Murderpedia entry is here

At one point, Duncan apparently understood himself that his sentence was just, and he declined to appeal it.  His "standby counsel" filed a notice of appeal with no authority to do so.  The capital defense bar apparently regards "volunteering" as per se proof of insanity, and lawyers regularly rush in and try to overrule any client who seeks to dismiss reviews of his death sentence.

Duncan later changed his mind, but too late.  The District Court found that Duncan was mentally competent, struck the void notice filed by standby counsel, and denied Duncan's motion to withdraw his waiver.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed.  Today the U.S. Supreme Court denied the certiorari petition in Duncan v. United States, No. 15-6408.

Teens, Confessions, and Culpability

Maura Dolan has this article in the L.A. Times about the controversies regarding police questioning of teenagers and, in a few cases, children about serious crimes.  Some people are arguing for bright-line rules to the effect that police can never question young people below some arbitrary cut-off age without a lawyer present, which for all practical purposes means they can't question them at all.  As Justice Robert Jackson noted long ago, "any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to police under any circumstances."*

A related issue is the culpability of minors for crimes.  The story says,

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said he would like Miranda rights to be eliminated and all interrogations videotaped. He called the brain research about adolescents' legal culpability "a bunch of hooey."
Not quite.  There is research about adolescents' brain development and mental capacity, and then there are extrapolations from that research about adolescents' legal culpability.  It is the latter that I said are "a bunch of hooey."  For example, there is no doubt that a process of central nervous system development called myelination is a work in progress in the late teen years.  However, there is a great deal of doubt whether this fact and other products of research support the kinds of sweeping conclusions in cases such as Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama.

On the Miranda point, the Supreme Court in Miranda expressly said that the procedures it laid out were not the last word, and it would be competent for legislatures to substitute other procedures to protect the right against compelled self-incrimination.  Video recording of interrogations is an alternative that should be considered.
One of the oddities of federal gun law is that the right to bear arms is generally taken away only for felonies, but domestic violence is treated specially, and the right to own a gun can be taken away for a misdemeanor.

A recurring problem in both gun possession law and recidivist sentencing is dealing with the wide variety of ways that crimes are defined in the 50 states and handful of almost-states that make up our federal republic.  Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" question in Voisine v. United States, No. 14-10154.  Amy Howe has this post at SCOTUSblog.

Counsel for the defendants asked the Court to take two questions:

1. Does a misdemeanor crime with the mens rea of recklessness qualify as a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" as defined by 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9)?

2. Are 18 U.S.C. §§ 921(a)(33)(A) and 922(g)(9) unconstitutional under the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments and the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution?
Mens rea means guilty mental state, an issue we discussed last term in relation to the Elonis case.  See, e.g., this post.

The high court took the statutory question, number 1, but said "fuggetaboutit" to the constitutional question, number 2.  No treat for Second Amendment fans this Halloween.
Emily Dalesio reports for AP:

A North Carolina man accused of trying to join al-Qaida-linked fighters in Syria should be forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication to see if that will make him competent to face trial, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Basit Sheikh faces serious charges that need a trial and prison doctors could medicate him with limited side effects, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said in his order. He put the order on hold, however, to allow an expected appeal. Court orders to forcibly medicate a suspect before trial are rare, but at least four similar cases in the appeals court region that includes North Carolina were later overturned.
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Pearls Of Wisdom

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In his book Admirable Evasions author and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple has these truisms:

It is more usual [in our modern world], however, to attribute good character to those those who behave badly than bad character to those who behave well (the latter propensity often being the consequence of envy).  I once heard a fond mother of a boy aged fifteen, who had burgled more than two hundred houses, say of him on the radio that "he's a good boy really," that is to say, a lad with a heart of gold, despite the considerable amount of misery to others that each of his crimes had almost certainty caused.  No doubt it is a natural and to some degree necessary thing for a mother to indulge in special pleading on behalf of her son, but it is absurd that it should be accorded any intellectual respect.


The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that whole-life sentences to prison are against Man's fundamental rights because they eliminate the possibility of repentance and redemption (known in the trade as rehabilitation).  Thus, the judges of a court that is supreme in matters relating to supposed human rights for a continent on which, within living memory, tens of millions of people have been systematically starved or abused to death or put to death industrially on an unimaginably vast scale, could conceive of no crime so terrible that the person who committed it was beyond earthly redemption.  On this basis, someone like Himmler, had he not committed suicide, or Beria, had he not been shot by his erstwhile colleagues, would have been eligible for parole, provided only that they showed reformed character by, for example, making toys for children or Braille books for the blind.

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