Texas Appellate Court Finds Trial Court Lacks Authority to Order Incompetent Inmate to Be Involuntarily Medicated to Restore His Competency to Be Executed

Staley v. Texas, _ S.W.3d _, 2013 WL 4820128 (Tex.Crim.App. 2013)

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held on September 13, 2013 that a trial court had no authority to order a mentally ill inmate, who had previously been found incompetent to be executed to be medicated under the State’s competency-to-be-executed statute and therefore vacated the execution order.

In 1991, Steven Kenneth Staley was convicted of capital murder when he and two others rounded up a group of employees at a restaurant, threatened them with firearms, and killed the manager after taking him hostage. The trial court has since held two competency hearings finding Staley incompetent to be executed at the first hearing, and competent at the second.

A month before his scheduled execution in 2006, Staley filed a motion challenging his competence to be executed, arguing that his competence was “artificial” due to his involuntary medication. The trial court appointed two clinical forensic psychologists as experts to evaluate him. They both found that Staley suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for which he had routinely been diagnosed for 15 years, and that his condition had deteriorated over time. They reported that although he understood he was to be executed, Staley did not have a rational understanding of the reason for his execution. They further testified that Staley had been prescribed medications, mainly Haldol, through the years but that he had not consistently complied with his mediation regimen. In the months immediately preceding the competency evaluations, he had frequently refused the mediation.

One of the evaluators testified that Staley demonstrated numerous symptoms of psychosis over the years, including self-inflicted injuries, grossly neglected personal hygiene, including resting in his own urine and excrement, irregular eating and sleeping habits, and delusions of paralysis to the extent of lying in bed so long as to rub a bald spot on his head. The psychologist further described Staley’s history of spontaneously and repeatedly refusing medication, and testified that he would probably require compulsory medication for long-term control of his symptoms. He stated that good medical practice would involve medication to control his symptoms.

The other clinical psychologist also testified that Staley’s symptoms included “syntactical aphasia,” which is the nonsensical ordering of words as well as the regular use of fictitious language. He further testified that when Staley was medication compliant he showed no symptoms of decompensation, but he frequently refused medication because he denied his illness, believing it was an attempt to poison him. Based on all of the testimony, the trial court found Staley incompetent to be executed.

The following month, the State moved the trial court to order involuntary medication, arguing both the medical purpose of the medication and the State’s interest in enforcing the judgment. Staley opposed the motion arguing that the side effects of the medication were harmful, and that the medication only produced “artificial competence” and did not therefore meet the competency-to-be-executed standard under the federal or Texas constitutions or the Texas statute.

The trial court authorized the involuntary medication finding that (1) the State has a legitimate interest in enforcing the sentence that is not outweighed by the inmate’s interest in avoiding medication; (2) the medication is the least intrusive and only method of achieving competency; (3) compelling medication is in the inmate’s best medical interest because without it he will suffer “frightening delusions and general disorder within his mind” and there is no evidence he had suffered side effects from the medication; and (4) without medication he posed a danger to himself and others. Staley immediately appealed this decision to the Court of Criminal Appeals, but the Court found the involuntary medication order to be a non-appealable interlocutory order.

In 2012, the State filed a request with the trial court for a further competency examination. The court heard evidence from one of the clinical psychologists who had testified at the first hearing and another clinical psychologist, both of whom found Staley was now competent to be executed. They testified that although Staley was experiencing delusional thoughts, his symptoms were under control with about 60% compliance with Haldol and that he knew many of the details of the litigation and crime. He knew the names of the defense attorneys, prosecutors, and the victim, and that the death penalty was, in his words, to “retribute the public for a heinous crime.” He also understood the lethal injection process and described the death process as permanently going to sleep. Staley did not actually believe, however, that he would be executed because he thought his attorneys would obtain a stay. One expert testified that Staley met the competence-to-be-executed standard under the statute because he understood (1) that he was to be executed and his execution was imminent and (2) the reason for his execution. After hearing the evidence, the trial court found Staley competent to be executed, but only because of the effects of forced medication. Staley then appealed this decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals arguing, among other things, that the trial court lacked authority to order his involuntary medication to restore him to competency to be executed.

On appeal, the Texas Appellate Court observed that a trial court derives its jurisdiction only from state law or the Texas Constitution, and once a conviction has been affirmed on appeal, general jurisdiction is not restored in the trial court. A trial court obtains jurisdiction post-conviction under a number of different Texas statutes, for example, to set an execution date, conduct DNA testing, or determine whether an inmate is competent to be executed. If an execution is stayed based on a determination that the inmate is incompetent, the trial court is required to order the inmate’s periodic re-evaluation by mental health experts to determine whether he is no longer incompetent to be executed. The Court held, however, that the statute does not convey the authority on the trial court to order involuntary medication to restore the inmate to competency to be executed. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the trial court had inherent or implied authority to order involuntary medication or that such a lack of authority would produce an absurd result in cases such as this.

By contrast, Texas statutes permit the involuntary medication of people who are involuntarily committed, or are incompetent and awaiting trial. The Court noted that in Texas this process involves an administrative hearing, not a judicial hearing, before a non-treating psychiatrist. Trial courts may also order a defendant to be forcibly medicated when under court order to receive inpatient mental health services or to be restored to competency to stand trial, but not to be executed.

Because the evidence demonstrated that Staley would have been incompetent to be executed but for the trial court’s involuntary medication order, the Court held that he did not meet the competency-to-be-executed definition under the Texas statute or the Texas or federal constitutions. The trial court’s unauthorized order was the sole cause of the transformation of evidence from supporting a finding of incompetence to one of competence. The Court therefore vacated the finding of competence and remanded the case to the trial court for periodic reexaminations of Staley’s competence to be executed.

Found in DMHL Volume 32 Issue 4