First Circuit Denies Habeas Relief That Counsel Was Ineffective in Failing to Request Competency Evaluation

Article excerpt

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has denied habeas corpus relief to a petitioner who was convicted of first degree murder in Massachusetts who allowed his 11-month old son to die based upon his religious beliefs. He argued that his counsel at trial was ineffective because he had an obligation to seek a competency to stand trial evaluation and that he failed to raise an insanity or diminished capacity defense. Robidoux v. O'Brien, 643 F.3d 334 (1st Cir. 2011).

The defendant in this case was a member of a religious sect led by his father that believed that a number of institutions, including the legal system, medical system and mainstream religion were invalid and its members were instructed to eschew doctors and medicines. The evidence showed that until he was about 8 months old, the child was thriving and well nourished, but about that time the defendant's sister got a "leading," instructing that the mother should feed the child only breast milk in limited quantities. Thereafter, the infant began to fail. The defendant and his wife failed to take the infant to a doctor or to provide him with a proper diet. The day after the sect conducted a special meeting to pray for the child, he died. After concealing the body in his sister's house for several months, the defendant buried the baby in Maine. The police located the body a year after the burial when a defector from the sect reported the death to authorities.

At trial, the defendant argued that the prosecution could not prove the cause of death was malnutrition, based upon the testimony of his forensic expert that the infant could have died from any number of causes. The chief medical examiner testified that the condition of the decomposed body was indicative of severe malnutrition due to starvation. The defendant testified in his own defense that he had no intent to harm the child. The jury convicted him of first degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.

In seeking habeas corpus relief, the defendant argued primarily that his counsel should have pursued an insanity or diminished capacity defense based upon three affidavits, the first from a psychologist who never interviewed the defendant stating that the defendant was unable to appreciate or understand that it was wrong to deprive his son of solid food. The Director of the New England Institute for Religious Research stated that the defendant's father exercised undue influence over him and other sect members that made it impossible for counsel to present an adequate defense. The defendant himself filed an affidavit stating that counsel discussed the insanity defense with him, but he refused to talk with a doctor or psychotherapist prior to trial due to his religious beliefs.

The trial court found that counsel properly defended the case based upon the judge's own observations of the defendant in court, the answers provided in colloquies from the bench, and his testimony at trial, even though he presented a rambling eve-of-trial motion to represent himself saying the government had no jurisdiction to try him, which she found appeared a tactic to delay trial. No fact-finding hearing was conducted on his competency to stand trial.

The First Circuit articulated the standard in ineffective assistance of counsel cases that there must be proof that counsel fell below the minimum standards of representation and there was a reasonable probability that the deficiency altered the outcome of the case. Where raising a particular defense is a strategy choice, counsel will be given special deference. On the other hand, if substantial indications exist that the defendant was not competent to stand trial, counsel is not faced with a strategy but with a settled obligation under Massachusetts and federal law to raise the issue with the court and seek a competency evaluation. Competency is a functional concept focusing on the defendant's part in the trial, namely whether the defendant understands the nature of the proceedings against him and is able to assist counsel in his defense. …

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