May 20, 2015
STATE OF LOUISIANA, Appellee
JEREMY D. JOHNSON, Appellant
Appealed from the Twenty-Sixth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Bossier, Louisiana. Trial Court No. 194838. Honorable Ford E. Stinson, Judge.
William R. Thornton, LOUISIANA APPELLATE PROJECT, Counsel for Appellant.
JOHN SCHUYLER MARVIN, District Attorney, JOHN MICHAEL LAWRENCE, SANTI A. PARKS, Assistant District Attorneys, Counsel for Appellee.
Before STEWART, DREW and PITMAN, JJ.
[49,848 La.App. 2 Cir. 1]
Jeremy Johnson attacks his conviction and sentence for his guilty plea to the crime of attempted aggravated rape. He correctly urges that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated by prosecutorial actions taken against him after he was adjudicated incompetent to proceed and without the court subsequently finding him competent.
We are constrained to vacate all actions at the trial level on and after November 12, 2013, specifically including his conviction and sentence.
I. Salient Early Chronology of Events
In early June of 2012, the defendant, then 22 years of age, was arrested for sexually abusing a child previously that month.
On June 8, 2012, the defendant was provided a lawyer.
On October 15, 2012, the defendant was indicted for the crime of aggravated rape.
On October 24, 2012, through counsel, the defendant filed an application for the appointment of a sanity commission, urging that he was suffering from a mental disease or defect that precluded his ability to understand the proceedings or to assist counsel with his defense.
On that date, the trial court ordered the requested sanity commission and appointed two psychiatrists to evaluate the
defendant's mental status. The physicians disagreed as to the defendant's mental competency to proceed.
On January 15, 2013, the trial court noted the differing conclusions and appointed a psychologist to further evaluate defendant's mental [49,848 La.App. 2 Cir. 2] condition. The third expert found the defendant to be mentally incompetent.
On April 30, 2013, the trial court issued a ruling that the defendant lacked the capacity to proceed because of a mental disease or defect that rendered him unable to understand the proceedings and to assist counsel.
On May 1, 2013, the trial court signed an order to transport the defendant to Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System (" ELMHS" ) for evaluation and treatment.
On May 30, 2013, the defendant was physically admitted to ELMHS.
On October 8, 2013, the ELMHS assistant clinical director and acting chief executive officer advised the court by letter that the defendant " presently has the mental capacity to proceed as he now understands the proceedings against him and can assist his attorney in the defense. Therefore, we are discharging Jeremy Johnson and returning him to the custody of the Sheriff of Bossier Parish immediately."
II. Response to the ELMHS Letter
On October 29, 2013, the prosecutor sought to comply with the mandatory time frame set out in La. C. Cr. P art. 649(A), but the assigned [49,848 La.App. 2 Cir. 3] judge was unavailable
on that date. The parties requested another judge (" the assisting judge" ) to accommodate them by holding a brief hearing at which the parties stipulated to the medical findings contained in the ELMHS discharge letter of October 8. The court allowed the stipulation and said: " With that, we should be in compliance with the Code articles and can now reset this matter before the assigned judge . . . for a status conference." No finding of mental competency to proceed was made.
On November 12, 2013, the defendant appeared before his assigned judge. Defense counsel's brief summary of events included a reference that [49,848 La.App. 2 Cir. 4] the assisting judge had presided over the October 29 sanity hearing.
The assigned judge made no finding as to the defendant's competency to proceed. There is no order or judgment of competency in this record.
III. Applicable Law
The Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure provides clear guidance on sanity issues involving criminal defendants.
A person who lacks the mental capacity to understand the proceedings
against him, to consult with counsel and to assist in his defense may not be [49,848 La.App. 2 Cir. 5] subject to trial. The failure to observe such procedures violates a defendant's due process right to a fair trial. Where the record does not reflect that a contradictory hearing was held or that a defendant's competency was ever determined by the trial court prior to his guilty plea being accepted, the guilty plea is invalid and the plea and sentence must be vacated and set aside. State v. Nomey, 613 So.2d 157 (La. 1993); State v. Thomas, 47,020 (La.App. 2d Cir. 4/11/12), 91 So.3d 1207.
The determination of whether a defendant has the present capacity to proceed, despite an earlier finding of incompetency, must be conducted in all respects like the original hearing which was had to determine defendant's mental condition. State v. Gibson, 2008-0741 (La. 11/10/08), 993 So.2d 1193. After a court determines that a defendant is incompetent to proceed, a hearing is required before a subsequent determination of competency can be made. See Gibson, supra.
A stipulation to medical findings for the purposes of the defendant's release from ELMHS under La. C. Cr. P. art. 649 does not amount to a judicial determination of the defendant's competency. A ruling from the trial judge as to the defendant's competency to proceed must occur before any further steps can be taken in the proceedings.
V. Analysis and Comments
We have previously held that trial courts cannot even accept a guilty plea if there is an unresolved request for a sanity commission, even if counsel seeks to withdraw the request. State v. Strain, 42,809 (La.App. 2d Cir. 12/5/07), 972 So.2d 1184.
The instant facts are more egregious, in that this guilty plea was taken [49,848 La.App. 2 Cir. 6] despite the most recent substantive ruling, a finding of mental incompetency by court order rendered April 30, 2012, and signed May 1, 2012.
No officer of the court and neither trial judge intended to do anything but follow the law. The mistake is understandable but must be rectified.
Many factors led to this glitch in communication, including:
o confusion about four separate charges in four separate records;
o the mandatory time frame required by La. C. Cr. P. art. 649, compliance with which is difficult in a multiparish judicial district;
o the good faith involvement of two judges and two prosecutors; and
o the sheer volume of court matters handled in any district court.
Because of the inadvertent violations of defendant's Sixth Amendment rights, all trial court actions taken on and after November 12, 2013, are vacated, including:
o the amended plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, entered on November 12, 2013;
o the guilty plea to attempted aggravated rape on April 4, 2014; and
o the 40-year hard labor sentence, without benefits, on August 19, 2014.
The case is remanded for further proceedings.
After a fresh hearing on the subject, the trial court must make a formal ruling as to whether or not the defendant is mentally competent to stand trial, [49,848 La.App. 2 Cir. 7] i.e., that he understands the charges against him, can communicate with counsel, and can assist counsel in his defense. If that question is resolved in the affirmative, this prosecution may proceed.
The defendant's guilty plea and sentence are vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
GUILTY PLEA AND SENTENCE VACATED; REMANDED.