Ninth Circuit Holds Expert in Competency Evaluation May Testify As to Diminished Capacity Defense

United States v. Christian, _F.3d _, 2014 WL 1491887 (9th Cir. Apr. 17, 2014)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held on April 17, 2014, that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to permit an expert psychologist who had completed a competency evaluation of the defendant to testify in support of the defendant’s diminished capacity defense. The Court of Appeals determined that the district court had focused in error on the different legal standards related to competency to stand trial and diminished capacity rather than focusing on whether the substance of the expert’s testimony would have assisted the jury in deciding whether the defendant could form the requisite intent to commit the crimes charged.

Eric Leon Christian was convicted of two counts of sending threatening emails through interstate commerce. In May 2009, he first emailed the then Chief of the North Las Vegas Police Department asking for assistance in retrieving his car, which had been repossessed several months earlier. When the police chief responded that the police could not assist him, he sent an email containing several threats of violence, including “I will have to kill to retrieve my stolen and items [sic] if you do not return them” and “This communication is protected by the First Amendment and my undying declaration of ridding the earth of terrorist, [sic] who take away Constitutional Rights like YOU and the thief who has my car.” Christian also emailed threats to the then chief deputy city attorney and the chief prosecutor for North Las Vegas. He had requested copies of case files for two cases, neither of which had been prosecuted by the attorney or the city attorney’s office. Christian followed with an email threatening to “get a mob together and start a civil war” to kill a state court judge or the attorney himself unless the attorney “g[o]t the Writ of Habeas Corpus out of the way.”

In an unrelated state court proceeding, a psychologist had evaluated Christian’s competency to stand trial. The psychologist interviewed Christian for about an hour, following an outline designed to assess the core competencies related to a defendant’s ability to assist in his defense. Christian was hostile and uncooperative during the interview, and the psychologist assessed his competence level in all areas to be inadequate. He determined that Christian could not communicate relevant information to his attorney, make rational decisions about plea bargaining or asserting a mental illness defense, or behave appropriately in the courtroom. The psychologist diagnosed Christian with psychosis, not otherwise specified, probably delusional or paranoid; personality disorder, not otherwise specified; and probable learning disabilities, not otherwise specified. He also believed Christian was at high risk for homicidal behaviors and recommended his transfer to another facility for treatment and medication management.

Prior to trial on these charges, Christian gave notice of his intent to call the psychologist as an expert witness. His sole defense to the charges was diminished capacity in which he argued that he was incapable of forming the specific intent required by the charge, in this case, the specific intent to threaten. The police chief and attorney both testified for the prosecution that they had felt threatened by the emails and had taken precautions to protect themselves and others. The police chief also testified that he thought Christian was very upset and “very disturbed.” At the close of the government’s case, Christian’s attorney informed the district court that he intended to call the psychologist to testify regarding Christian’s diminished capacity defense. Without conducting a voir dire of the psychologist to determine the substance of his testimony or to permit counsel to proffer what his specific testimony would be, the district court determined that because the legal standards for competency to stand trial and the diminished capacity defense, which concerns “whether the defendant has the ability to attain the culpable state of mind which defines the crime,” the expert could not testify. Christian’s attorney then rested his case without presenting any other evidence or calling Christian to testify. He then asked for a diminished capacity instruction to the jury, which the district court denied because there was no evidence in the record that would support such an instruction. The jury convicted Christian on both counts.

Christian appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that the district court had abused its discretion by refusing to let him introduce expert testimony in support of his diminished capacity defense and refusing his diminished capacity instruction. The Court of Appeals agreed with Christian on the district court’s refusal to admit the expert testimony, finding that the district court had focused exclusively on the different legal standards. Instead the court should have determined whether the testimony regarding he psychologist’s observations and diagnoses of Christian would have been relevant and helpful to the jury in evaluating his diminished capacity defense. The Court then decided that the failure to allow the expert testimony was not harmless error and a new trial was necessary. Because the district court had not conducted a voir dire of the expert, the district court on remand must first do so, assessing whether the testimony would in fact be relevant and would assist the jury in assessing the diminished capacity defense. Once the district court does this, and if it then determines the evidence is relevant and would be of assistance to the jury, it should allow the testimony.

The Ninth Circuit rejected Christian’s argument that the district court erred in not giving the jury a diminished capacity instruction. He had argued that the threats in the emails themselves were inherently irrational and were sufficient to warrant a diminished capacity instruction. He also argued that even the police chief believed him to be “very disturbed.” The Ninth Circuit found that these arguments alone were insufficient to require a diminished capacity instruction, but if there had been any evidence in the record, the instruction should have been given. The Appellate Court then held, however, that if any evidence on remand, expert or otherwise, supports a link between Christian’s mental illness and his ability to form the intent to threaten, then the instruction must be given. The Ninth Circuit vacated the conviction and remanded the case to the district court for a new trial.

Found in DMHL Volume 33 Issue 2