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United States v. Porter

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 26, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
WALTER PORTER, Also Known as Moonie Porter, Also Known as Urkel Porter Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

          Before SMITH, CLEMENT, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.

          JERRY E. SMITH, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Walter Porter appeals his conviction by contesting orders finding him competent to stand trial and denying his request for expert funding and motions to continue. We affirm.

         I.

         Nemesis Bates offered Porter $20, 000 to murder Christopher Smith. Porter accepted and killed Smith. Porter and Bates were charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1958(a) (Solicitation to Commit a Crime of Violence), 18 U.S.C. § 924(j) (Causing Death Through the Use of a Firearm), and 18 U.S.C. § 924(o) (Conspiracy to Possess a Firearm). Before that indictment, Porter was indicted for RICO violations in a second case and for armed bank robberies in a third.[1]Two of those three cases were assigned to Judge Sarah Vance and the other to Judge Martin Feldman, both in the Eastern District of Louisiana.[2]

         In April 2014, Porter's attorneys[3] moved to declare him incompetent in all three cases.[4] For efficiency, Judges Vance and Feldman conducted the competency proceedings together.[5] Defense counsel submitted affidavits explaining their difficulties communicating with Porter. Counsel also offered a report from psychiatrist Brushnan Agharkar, who, after three interviews with Porter, provisionally diagnosed him with Schizoaffective Disorder.[6] Agharkar also suggested that Porter suffered from a neurocognitive disorder or an intellectual disability.

         In response, the government requested the opportunity to conduct a psychiatric or psychological examination in accordance with 18 U.S.C. §§ 4241(a) and (b) and 4247(b) and (c). The district court agreed in April 2014, and Porter was transported to the Federal Medical Center at Devens ("Devens") in Massachusetts. Devens's forensic psychologist, Shawn Channell, examined Porter and submitted a report in August 2014. Channell provisionally recommended that Porter was not competent and that he remain at Devens for further evaluation and treatment. Channell explained that he needed more time to decide whether Porter was malingering symptoms[7] or genuinely suffering from a mental illness.

         At a joint competency hearing in October 2014, the court determined that Porter was not then competent to stand trial and committed him for further evaluation and treatment under 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d). In April 2015, after further evaluating Porter, Channell submitted a new report to the court in May 2015. Channell opined that Porter was malingering symptoms of psychosis and recommended that he be found competent to stand trial.[8] The court scheduled a second competency hearing for July 2015.

         Porter then moved for funding for a neurological evaluation in one of his other pending cases.[9] Judge Feldman denied that motion on the merits. Porter next moved for reconsideration of that motion in all three cases, which Judge Feldman again denied on the merits in the case where Porter filed the original motion. Judge Vance denied the motion for reconsideration in the other two cases-including the instant case-because the original motion was filed in a different case.

         Next, Porter moved to continue the second competency hearing, averring that he needed more time for follow-up evaluations with experts and to finish ongoing discovery. The district court denied that motion, observing that Porter already had a follow-up scheduled with Agharkar and that Porter either had received all discovery or had failed to move to compel compliance with any outstanding requests. Undeterred, in June 2015 Porter sought another continuance for similar reasons, which the court again denied.

         The second competency hearing was held July 6, 2015, as scheduled. After the hearing, the district court issued a 62-page joint opinion finding Porter competent to stand trial. The court thoroughly described each expert's reports and testimony. It also recounted Porter's records from Devens, transcripts of his previous court appearances, his past criminal records, his juvenile records, his letters to the court, and his mother's medical records.

         The court ultimately credited Channell's testimony that Porter was malingering, citing multiple portions of Channell's report. Channell stated that Porter first presented his alleged psychotic symptoms at age thirty-eight, but Schizophrenia normally presents itself in one's early- to mid-twenties.[10] Channell also said that the types of hallucinations Porter claimed (visual and command hallucinations) are atypical in schizophrenics. Porter's response to antipsychotic medications further indicated malingering because Porter reported an increase in symptoms when taking the medications. That Porter reported and called attention to his symptoms was also abnormal in schizophrenics and evidenced malingering: A genuinely mentally ill person typically lacks the ability to recognize that he is hallucinating or experiencing delusional thoughts.

         Channell concluded that Porter's reported symptoms "are demonstrably absurd because it is extremely unlikely that they could collectively be produced by genuine mental illness." In addition, Channell opined that Porter possesses the ability to cooperate and merely chooses not to. He noted that "Porter was observed routinely interacting normally with inmates and prison staff" during his time at Devens. Porter refused to cooperate only during Channell's competency evaluations.

         The court chose not to credit Agharkar's report that he prepared after Porter's release from Devens. Agharkar maintained his previous conclusion that Porter was not competent to stand trial, though "only skimmed" the Devens records, interviewed Porter twice after his release, and spoke with several of Porter's family members. Still, Agharkar "opine[d] that [Porter's] understanding of why those charges were brought, his ability to communicate rationally about the charges and the evidence, and his ability to work with counsel are impaired by his psychotic or neurocognitive disorder." Agharkar averred that Porter's auditory hallucinations were consistent with a psychotic disorder but admitted that the visual hallucinations were atypical. The court refused to credit Agharkar's opinion, explaining that it would have "to accept too many unexplained inconsistencies with such diagnosis: Porter's lack of prior mental illness and sudden onset of symptoms, his befuddling responses to antipsychotic medication, his calling attention to his symptoms, and the inconsistent manner in which he has exhibited symptoms."[11]

         The court also considered Porter's actions during the various judicial proceedings. Acknowledging that Porter interrupted the proceedings multiple times, the court emphasized that almost all those outbursts addressed the immediate proceedings.[12] Porter "voiced factual disagreements with matters currently under discussion" and "remained engaged and attentive." In other words, Porter "left no doubt that he understood the matters under discussion and was capable of voicing his disagreement with factual testimony."[13]

         The district court ultimately concluded that Porter was competent because he was "not presently suffering from a mental illness or defect." Erring on the side of caution, however, the court moved to the other part of the competency analysis: whether Porter was capable of consulting with his lawyers with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he possessed a factual and rational understanding of the proceedings. The court found that Porter could reasonably consult with his attorneys and did possess a factual and rational understanding of the proceedings.[14]

         The jury convicted on all counts. The district court sentenced Porter to life in prison on two counts and 240 months' imprisonment on the other. Porter timely appealed the competency finding, the denial of his request for funding, and denials of his motions for continuance.

         II.

         Porter challenges the finding that he was competent to stand trial. Title 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a) allows a district court to grant a hearing to determine competency where "there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may presently be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent." The court must determine "by a preponderance of the evidence" whether "the defendant is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense." Id. § 4241(d). "A district court can consider several factors in evaluating competency, including, but not limited to, its own observations of the defendant's demeanor and behavior; medical testimony; and the observations of other individuals that have interacted with the defendant." United States v. Simpson, 645 F.3d 300, 306 (5th Cir. 2011). A defendant is competent where he has "the present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and [has] a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceeding against him." Id. (cleaned up).

         We review a district court's competency determination using a "species of clear error" review. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "[A]fter reanalyzing the facts and taking a hard look at the trial judge's ultimate conclusion, we will reverse only if the finding ...


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