Maine Finds Right to Competency in Post-Conviction Proceedings

Haraden v. State, 32 A.3d 448 (Maine 2011)

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled on November 17, 2011 that a convicted defendant has the statutory right to be competent during post-conviction proceedings. Although a defendant has no constitutional right of access to post-conviction proceedings to overturn his or her conviction, Maine has statutorily created a process whereby inmates may challenge their convictions, including setting time limits within which relief may be sought, the number of petitions that may be filed, the nature and scope of claims that may be pursued, and the type of relief that may be granted.15 M.R.S § 2130 (2010). As part of the post-conviction process, inmates are specifically given a statutory right to counsel. The Court therefore found that implied within that right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel. It then reasoned that counsel cannot effectively assist his client if his client cannot meaningfully communicate with him.

In this case, the inmate was convicted of murder by a jury and sentenced to 52 years in prison. After his trial, conviction and appeal, the inmate raised factual allegations that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel. On the inmate’s motion, the court ordered a mental evaluation by the State Forensic Service. The evaluation indicated that although the inmate was not psychotic, he was unable to assist his attorney in the post-conviction process. Based upon the evaluation, the trial court found him incompetent to proceed. The court then proceeded to decide the matter upon the legal issues presented, but continued those claims based upon factual contentions until such time as the inmate became competent. During that time period, the inmate was ordered to remain in the Department of Corrections and not be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services for restoration to competency.

In upholding the right found by the trial court, the Supreme Court was faced with a dilemma of how to proceed when an inmate may have a legitimate claim for release but cannot pursue it due to his incompetency. It therefore had to fashion a process to handle the prisoner’s claims. The Court determined that when an inmate’s competency is in question, the court must order an evaluation by the State Forensic Service. Because a defendant was presumed to be competent during trial, the burden rests on the inmate to prove his incompetency by a preponderance of the evidence. If he does so, the court must still proceed to adjudicate the inmate’s claims and defense counsel must represent the inmate to the best of his or her ability. Under Maine post-conviction law, an inmate must 1) file a post-conviction claim within one year and 2) may only seek post-conviction review once, raising all claims he may have in that petition or else they are considered waived. If the inmate is found to be incompetent, however, the Court then provided that an inmate may file an affidavit at a later date alleging that he had previously been found incompetent and has regained his competence as a result of the passage of time, medical intervention or some other substantial change. If the court then determines the inmate has regained competency, it must review the petition to determine whether, if the newly asserted evidence or grounds were true, the outcome of a post-conviction judgment would be different, and which, if any, of the defendant’s claims may be pursued despite the intervening delay. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the inmate must remain in the custody of the Department of Corrections during the period of incompetency and not be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services for restoration services. Presumably, the inmate could not then be ordered treated over his objection to restore him to competency.

Found in DMHL Volume 31 Issue 2