California Supreme Court Finds No Denial of Due Process in Requiring Convicted Defendant to Prove Incompetence to Stand Trial

People v. Ary, 120 Cal. Rptr.3d 431, 246 P.3d 322 (2011)

The California Supreme Court has determined that a defendant is not denied due process of law when he is required to carry the burden of proving that he was incompetent to stand trial at a retrospective hearing to determine his competency. The defendant in this case was charged with murder and other related felonies. At trial, the defendant moved to suppress his confession and presented psychiatric evidence that he was mildly mentally retarded. The trial court found that he had voluntarily waived his Miranda rights, but found that the confession was coerced and suppressed it. The jury convicted the defendant of murder but was unable to decide upon whether to recommend the death penalty. The court then declared a mistrial on the sentencing issue and sentenced him to life in prison.

On appeal, the Intermediate Court of Appeals determined that the trial judge had erred in failing to evaluate whether the defendant was competent to stand trial and remanded the case for such a determination first as to whether sufficient evidence existed to determine whether the defendant had been competent to stand trial and, if so, to conduct a competency hearing. The trial court found upon remand that evidence of the defendant’s mental condition was still available and it was feasible to retrospectively determine his competency at the time of the original trial, and proceeded to conduct the competency hearing. Over the defendant’s objection that the prosecution should prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was competent to stand trial, the judge placed the burden on the defendant to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was mentally incompetent when tried. After a retrospective hearing, the trial court found the defendant competent.

On appeal, the Intermediate Court of Appeals concluded that, in contrast to the burden of proof allocation at competency hearings held before or during trial, at a retrospective competency hearing federal due process principles require the prosecution to bear the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is competent to stand trial. The Attorney General’s Office appealed to the California Supreme Court which reversed finding that the trial court appropriately placed the burden on the defendant. The California Supreme Court noted that a defendant is presumed competent and that the United States Supreme Court had previously upheld California’s imposition of the burden at the pretrial stage on the defendant to prove incompetence by a preponderance of the evidence. Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437 (1992). It was therefore appropriate in retrospective hearings to also place the burden on the defendant. In order to impose such a burden post-trial and for the court to consider such an issue, however, the Court held that there must be sufficient evidence available to reliably determine defendant’s mental competence after the fact.

Found in DMHL Volume 30 Issue 6