Mental illness and mens rea

Right to due process in criminal trial may be violated by state trial court’s exclusion of proffered expert testimony that, because of defendant’s mental condition, defendant lacked the mens rea required under state law to be guilty of the crime charged

Roberson v. Stephens, 2015 WL 3396822 (5th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (unpublished opinion)

Robert Roberson was convicted of capital murder in the death of his daughter and sentenced to death. On direct appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Roberson argued inter alia that the trial court’s exclusion of his expert witness’s testimony regarding his organic brain syndrome violated his constitutional right to present a complete defense. Texas law does not recognize diminished capacity as an affirmative defense, but does allow evidence to negate the mens rea element of offenses. The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Roberson’s claim, concluding that the doctor’s testimony was “not relevant as to Roberson’s ability to form the requisite mens rea for the offense” but “was merely being used as a mental-health defense not rising to the level of insanity.” After his direct appeal, Roberson filed applications for a writ of habeas corpus first in state court and then in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, but was denied.

The Fifth Circuit, in a per curiam opinion, granted a certificate of appealability as to Roberson’s due process mens rea evidence claim. It noted that “evidence rules that infringe upon a weighty interest of the accused and are arbitrary or disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve” infringe the Constitutional guarantee to “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.” Although it granted the certificate of appealability, the Fifth Circuit made it clear that Roberson still bears the burden of persuading the Court that the expert testimony was “substantial enough that its exclusion constituted an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” as is required by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) for habeas relief.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 2