Psychiatric Testimony Not Harmless Error

Developments in Mental Health Law, July-December 1988 | Go to article overview

Psychiatric Testimony Not Harmless Error


Satterwhite v. Texas,--U.S.--, 56 U.S.L.W. 4470 (May 31, 1988)

John Satterwhite was charged with and indicted for the capital crime of murder during a robbery in Texas. Satterwhite was subjected to pretrial examinations by psychologists and psychiatrists pursuant to court orders. A letter appeared in the court file from Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist who examined Satterwhite, stating that in his opinion Satterwhite had "a severe antisocial personality disorder and is extremely dangerous and will commit future acts of violence." Satterwhite was tried by jury and convicted of murder.

In a separate sentencing proceeding the trial court sentenced Sattervchite to death as required by Texas law, because the jury found that Satterwhite deliberately committed the murder and that there was "a probability that he would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society." Over the objection of defense counsel, Dr. Grigson testified at Satterwhite's sentencing proceeding that he "will present a continuing threat to society by continuing acts of violence." In his closing argument, the district attorney emphasized Dr. Grigson's testimony.

Estelle v. Smith, 451 U.S. 454 (1981), established that defendants charged with capital crimes have a sixth amendment right to consult with counsel before submitting to psychiatric exams designed to determine their future dangerousness. In this case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined that the state did not provide notice of Dr. Grigson's examination of Satterwhite to his defense counsel. The court of criminal appeals found that defense counsel had no actual knowledge of the motion and order for psychiatric examination. That court also rejected the state's argument that placement of the state's motion and court's ex parte order in the court's file gave defense counsel constructive notice of the exam. In an opinion delivered by Justice O'Colmor, the Supreme Court wholly agreed with the holding of the court of criminal appeals that neither actual nor constructive notice of the exam was given to defense council.

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