The Daily Digest, 4/25/11

In Schriro v. Landrigan, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on two questions: (1) Whether a defendant can knowingly and voluntarily waive his right to have mitigating evidence introduced on his behalf in a capital case, and (2) Whether a genetic predisposition to violence is mitigating. Deciding the first question in the affirmative, it did not reach, except in dicta, the second question.

In the case today, the court found that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to have mitigating evidence introduced on his behalf. And that his “volatility,” from his brain trauma should not be “equated with mental incompetence to stand trial.” Finding no prejudice to the defendant for failing to order pre-trial competency screening, the court found the waiver knowing, and voluntary, and upheld both his conviction and sentence.

Competency, Waiver of Mitigating Evidence, Brain Damage
State v. Delahanty, 2011 WL 1327986 (Ariz. 2011)
Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and solicitation to commit first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death for the murder and to prison terms for the other offenses. After conviction, both the defendant and the State waived a jury trial on aggravation. Shortly after the penalty phase began, the Defendant sought to waive presentation of mitigation. The trial judge appointed a psychologist, to determine whether the defendant was competent to do so. After receiving the expert report, the court concluded that the defendant had knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to present mitigation. The jury subsequently determined that he should be sentenced to death. The Defendant now claims that the Court should have ordered a competency prescreening before the state sough the death penalty. The State filed its notice of intent to seek the death penalty in September 2005. The trial court failed to order a competency prescreening, and the Defendant did not object or request one. He now claims that the court erred in not ordering a competency prescreening. Because the Defendant did not object below, he must show “both that fundamental error exists and that the error in his case caused him prejudice.” The Defendant cannot establish fundamental error. A competency hearing is required only if “on the basis of the facts and circumstances known to the trial judge, there was or should have been a good faith doubt about the defendant’s ability … to participate intelligently in the proceedings.” The critical inquiry is “whether [the defendant] 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.” The record is replete with evidence that Defendant understood the proceedings against him and was able to assist in his own defense. He nonetheless contends that the trial court’s appointment of a psychologist in connection with his waiver of mitigation and the report of of another psychologist entered at sentencing on the non-capital counts raised a “bona fide doubt” as to his competence. The Court disagreed. Before ordering a psychological screening, the court made clear that it had no doubts about defendant’s ability to understand the proceedings, but simply wanted to make sure that he understood the consequences of the waiver. The psychologist concluded that the Defendant understood the consequences of waiving mitigation, and nothing in his report raised any doubt as to his competence. Nor does the sentencing expert’s report suggest a contrary conclusion. That expert opined that the Defendant suffered from physical trauma to the brain and that “brain damage of that nature reduces the ability of an individual to control impulsive violent urges.” Volatility, however, should not “be equated with mental incompetence to stand trial.” Accordingly, the Defendant has failed to establish fundamental error. The court likewise dismissed the defendants other contentions of error and affirmed both the conviction and sentences.

About Nita A. Farahany

Professor of Law and Philosophy, Professor of Genome Sciences and Policy
This entry was posted in Criminal, Neuroscience and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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