Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Right of the Condemned to Have Counsel Present at Execution as Established in the Case of Robert Glen Coe

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Right of the Condemned to Have Counsel Present at Execution as Established in the Case of Robert Glen Coe

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

This article will discuss one very small but significant aspect of the last minute litigation filed on behalf of Robert Glen Coe, who on April 19, 2000 became the first person executed in Tennessee in nearly forty years. On March 21, 2000, proceedings were brought in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee asserting that Robert Glen Coe had a right to have counsel present at his execution. This assertion was based on his right to access to the courts guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In two published opinions, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger became the first judge in the Union to enunciate a client's right to have counsel present at his execution.'

II. HISTORY OF THE CASE

Robert Glen Coe was indicted for the September 1, 1979 rape, kidnaping, and murder of Cary Medlin. In 1981, Robert Coe was sentenced to death, and the sentence was subsequently affirmed on direct appeal? Thereafter, Coe filed three petitions in state court seeking post-conviction relief, all of which were denied. In 1987, Coe filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. In December of 1996 the district court granted Coe habeas corpus relief, ordering a new trial. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court and reinstated Coe's sentence of death?

After the United States Supreme Court declined to review the case,4 the State of Tennessee filed a motion in the Tennessee Supreme Court to set an execution dates In response, Coe's counsel asserted that Coe was mentally incompetent to be executed.6 The Tennessee

Supreme Court then set an execution date of March 23, 2000, and remanded Coe's case to the Criminal Court of Shelby County to conduct an expedited hearing to determine whether Coe was competent to be executed. Judge John Colton conducted a competency hearing from January 24 through January 28, 2000.8

At the hearing, counsel argued that Coe lacked the mental capacity to understand the fact of and the reason for his impending execution.' Thus, Coe argued that the Eighth Amendment prohibited his execution.'o Dr. William Kenner, a psychiatrist on the faculty at Vanderbilt University Medical School, testified that Coe suffered from dissociative identity disorder," a condition which would cause Coe to phase in and out of mental competency, depending upon the presence of stressors in his life." Opining that an imminent execution is a very stressful thing, Dr. Kenner stated that as the execution date approached, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, Coe would decompensate and become mentally incompetent to the point where it would violate the Eighth Amendment to execute him.13

On February 2, 2000, Judge Colton ruled that Robert Glen Coe was competent to be executed.14 The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed on March 6, 2000.15 However, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated in its opinion that if there were a substantial change in Coe's mental condition as execution was approaching that could be verified by a mental health expert, the court might reconsider the issue.16 Thus, counsel was in a position of desperately needing to observe Coe closely and continuously as his execution approached in order to determine whether there was any appreciable deterioration in Coe's mental condition. Yet policies at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, which houses Tennessee's death row, isolated Coe from his counsel at the time closest to his execution. It was at this time that counsel was attempting to determine whether or not Coe would mentally decompensate under the stress of impending execution as Dr. Kenner predicted.

Riverbend policy permitted Coe to have visitation with his attorney up to one hour before the time of execution." At 12:00 a.m., Coe was to be taken to a holding cell, where he was to remain until 1:00 a. …

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