Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Present Competency to Be Executed-Van Tran V. State: Common Law and Constitutional Prohibitions against Executing the Insane and the Inherent Authority of the Tennessee

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

Present Competency to Be Executed-Van Tran V. State: Common Law and Constitutional Prohibitions against Executing the Insane and the Inherent Authority of the Tennessee

Article excerpt

In 1989, Heck Van Tran was sentenced to death after he was convicted of three counts of felony murder for his role in a triple murder during a robbery at a Memphis, Tennessee restaurant.1 Six years after his conviction, Van Tran filed a petition for post-conviction relief under the Post-Conviction Procedure Act (PCPA), alleging that his present mental incompetency would render his execution unconstitutional.2 Notwithstanding its recognition that a prisoner's mental incompetency prevents his or her execution, the trial court held that a claim of present incompetency "is not cognizable in a post-conviction proceeding."3 The trial court reasoned that even if Van Tran's assertion of mental incompetency were true, his case "would not be void or voidable as a result of a constitutional violation."4

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found that the PCPA statutory scheme5 contained no provision addressing a claim of present incompetency and affirmed the trial court's decision.6 The Court of Criminal Appeals further opined that Van Tran had a right to be heard on the issue, but that the Tennessee Code provided no specific procedural mechanism for the adjudication of a prisoner's mental competency to be executed.7 The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, was reluctant to establish such a procedure and, thus, left the establishment of such a mechanism to the Tennessee General Assembly or the Tennessee Supreme Court.8 The Tennessee Supreme Court held, affirmed. The "claim that a prisoner is not competent to be executed cannot be raised in a proceeding under the [PCPA]." Thus, the court clarified the procedure by which a prisoner may raise the issue of present mental competency to be executed. Van Tran v. Tennessee, 6 S.W.3d 257, 265-74 (Tenn. 1999).

The doctrine that permits a prisoner to assert a claim of "present incompetency" as an objection to capital punishment dates back to sixteenth-century English common law.9 The principles of this doctrine have been described as follows:

[I]diots and lunatics are not chargeable for their own acts, if committed when under these incapacities: no, not even for treason itself. Also, if a man in his sound memory commits a capital offence [sic], and before arraignment for it, he becomes mad, he ought not be arraigned for it: because he is not able to plead to it with that advice and caution that he ought. And if, after he has pleaded, the prisoner becomes mad, he shall not be tried: for how can he make his defence [sic]? If, after he be tried and found

guilty, he loses his senses before judgment,judgment shall not be pronounced; and if, after judgment, he becomes of nonsane [sic] memory, execution shall be stayed: for peradventure, says the humanity of the English law, had the prisoner been of sound memory, he might have alleged something in stay of judgment or execution.10

These guiding principles of the common law doctrine of present incompetency have been supported upon numerous grounds. For example, commentators have found that the doctrine is supported by moral considerations, as the execution of an insane person is offensive to humanity.11 In addition, the efficacy of the execution of a mentally incompetent person has also been questioned, as it has been stated that such an execution provides no example to others and, thus, does not contribute to the deterrence rationale underlying capital punishment.12 Other commentary is more spiritual in focus, asserting that "it is uncharitable to dispatch an offender 'into another world, when he is not of a capacity to fit himself for it.'"3 In a particularly acerbic justification, some argue that madness is sufficient punishment in itself.14 More recently, commentators have focused upon the retributive nature of capital punishment and have opined that "the community's quest for 'retribution'-the need to offset a criminal act by a punishment of equivalent 'moral quality'-is not served by execution of an insane person, which has a 'lesser value' than that of the crime for which he is to be punished. …

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