"A Meaningless Ritual": How the Lack of a Postconviction Competency Standard Deprives the Mentally Ill of Effective Habeas Review in Texas*

By Miller, Hannah Robertson | Texas Law Review, November 2008 | Go to article overview

"A Meaningless Ritual": How the Lack of a Postconviction Competency Standard Deprives the Mentally Ill of Effective Habeas Review in Texas*


Miller, Hannah Robertson, Texas Law Review


"It is deplorable and outrageous that . . . prisons appear to have become a repository for a great number of . . . mentally ill citizens. Persons who, with psychiatric care, could fit well into society, are instead locked away, to become wards of the state's penal system. Then, in a tragically ironic twist, they may be confined in conditions that nurture, rather than abate, their psychoses."

- Judge William Wayne Justice1

Kelsey Patterson was sentenced to death by the State of Texas in 1993 for the murders of Louis Oates, a sixty-three-year-old owner of an oil company in Palestine, Texas, and Oates's business secretary, Dorothy Harris.2 After the murders, he was found standing naked in the street a short distance from the loading dock where he had shot Oates and Harris in their heads.3 The investigating officers could not identify a motive for the crime, other than an allegation that Patterson had once argued with Oates over who was a better football player: Patterson or Oates's son.4

Patterson had a documented history of mental illness, and he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1981 following the nonfatal shooting of a coworker who teased him for not putting his lunch in the refrigerator.5 After being found incompetent to stand trial, he was forcibly medicated and restored to competency, but the charges were dismissed based on a defense of insanity.6 Two years later, Patterson shot another coworker for no apparent reason at a pizzeria where he was working.7 He was again found incompetent to stand trial, restored to competency, and then acquitted based on his insanity defense.8

At the trial for Oates's and Harris's murders, Patterson was again reviewed for competency, but this time the defense expert found him to be competent - and the jury agreed.9 Throughout the trial, he exploded in ranting outbursts, telling his lawyer to "be quiet" and complaining of a conspiracy to implant him with electronic devices.10 His insanity defense was rejected, and he was sentenced to death.11

Patterson's mental illness deteriorated while he was on death row. By the time of his federal habeas evidentiary hearing, his delusions had evolved to include the district judge and his postconviction counsel, both of whom he referred to as "hell workers."12 These delusions made it impossible for Patterson's lawyer to communicate with him, and Patterson spent his final years writing letters to judges and the parole board, refusing to acknowledge that he was even represented by counsel.13 His state and federal habeas claims were denied;14 he was found competent to be executed;15 and Texas Governor Rick Perry refused to grant clemency on the basis of mental illness.16 Patterson was executed on May 18, 2004, after spending ten years on Texas's death row.17 He uttered the following last words:

Statement to what. State What. I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family's money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker. Murderer. [Portion of statement omitted due to profanity.] Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.18

I. Introduction

The requirement that a death row inmate be found "competent to be executed" is the last link in what seems to be a comprehensive chain of protections for mentally ill criminal defendants. Criminal defendants today must be competent to stand trial, to plead guilty, to waive trial and postconviction counsel, to waive appeals, and to be executed.19 However, in Texas, as in most other states, courts do not recognize a right to competency during state or federal postconviction proceedings, despite the centrality of these proceedings in a capital defendant's journey through the criminal justice system.20 In the modern death penalty system, where skilled capitaldefense attorneys are scarce, collateral review serves as an essential means of ensuring the accuracy and reliability of a death sentence.

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