Competence to stand trial

State courts violated clear due process standards in failing to address defendant’s competency to stand trial

McManus v. Neal, 779 F.3d 634 (7th Cir. 2015)

Paul McManus was convicted in Indiana state court of murdering his estranged wife and two daughters and was sentenced to death. On state post-conviction review, a trial judge found McManus to be intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 526 U.S. (2002) and Ind. Code § 35-36-9-6, but the Indiana Supreme Court re-imposed the death sentence. McManus then sought federal habeas review, challenging the Indiana Supreme Court’s rejection of his Atkins claim. The Seventh Circuit expanded the appeal to include the question of whether the state court “unreasonably applied federal due-process standards in finding McManus competent to stand trial.”

The Seventh Circuit held that the trial court and state supreme court failed to follow the due process competence to stand trial standard set out in Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966) and Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960). During the trial, McManus suffered several panic attacks and had to be transported to the emergency room where he was treated with several psychotropic drugs, including both opioid painkillers and ones that affected memory. The Seventh Circuit held that the “powerful effect of the medications alone created substantial doubt about McManus’ mental fitness for trial” and faulted the state judge for not ordering a competency evaluation and instead focusing on “getting McManus ‘fixed-up’ enough to complete the trial.” This course of action violated not only the due process standard set out in Dusky but also the Indiana Code, which requires a trial court to appoint a team of medical experts with expertise in determining competency and to hold a hearing any time there are bona fide doubts about a defendant’s competency. See Ind. Code § 35-36-3-1. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to grant the writ of habeas corpus unless Indiana gave notice of its intent to retry McManus within a reasonable time.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 2