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Boyett v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

April 25, 2018



          Keasler, Hervey, Richardson, Yeary, Newell, Keel, and Walker, JJ., joined. Keller, P.J., concurred.


          Alcala, J.

         In this petition for discretionary review, Crystal Lummas Boyett, appellant, contends that the court of appeals erred by upholding the trial court's denial of her request for a formal determination of her competency to stand trial for manslaughter. After an informal inquiry on competency, the trial court found that there was "not sufficient evidence to support a finding of incompetence, " and it declined to undertake a formal competency trial aided by expert evaluation. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's decision. We reverse. As we explain below, the court of appeals improperly considered evidence of appellant's competency rather than considering only evidence of her incompetency, and it mistakenly applied a more burdensome evidentiary standard than the "some evidence" standard required by the applicable statute. Because appellant was convicted and sentenced in this case, we remand this case to the trial court for it to determine the feasibility of a retrospective formal competency trial and, if feasible, to conduct such an inquiry.

         I. Background

         Appellant was speeding excessively when she caused a collision with another car that was occupied by three women. Two were killed; one was seriously injured. The State charged appellant with manslaughter for one of the deaths. Appellant pleaded not guilty, and the case proceeded to trial, at which appellant was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

         Because the instant appeal concerns only appellant's competency to stand trial, the remainder of the background for this opinion focuses on that topic. During a recess at trial before the guilty verdict, defense counsel filed a motion in which he made a suggestion of appellant's incompetency to stand trial. The trial court then held an informal competency hearing. We detail that portion of the record next, before we turn to the appellate proceedings.

         A. The Informal Competency Proceedings Before the Trial Court

          On the third day of the guilt-innocence phase of trial, defense counsel filed a motion raising the issue of appellant's competency to stand trial.[1] See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 46B.004(a). Defense counsel informed the trial judge that appellant had been previously diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia and that he believed that appellant was having a schizophrenic episode based on certain recent observations by himself and several others.[2]Specifically, defense counsel told the trial judge that, during a meeting with appellant and several others the previous day, counsel looked in a notebook that had been given to appellant to write down questions during the trial. Counsel said that instead of notes or questions, he found "aimless doodling" and "very bizarre writings." He described two pages of writings that made it seem as if appellant was talking to herself or "rambling." Upon discovering this, counsel mentioned it to appellant's mother and sister who were present at the meeting, and appellant's mother replied that she had, the day before, heard appellant in the laundry room mumbling and talking aloud to herself and laughing. In addition to this information, counsel informed the trial judge that, after that meeting, he consulted with a defense expert to ask him if he thought that "appellant was in touch with reality" and that the expert responded "no." Lastly, counsel told the trial judge that another attorney, who is unaffiliated with appellant's case, approached counsel that morning to ask if "there [is] something wrong with your client" after the attorney observed appellant in the hallway "mumbling and talking to herself" and appearing to be "totally out of touch." Counsel explained to the trial judge that he had only become aware of the possibility that appellant may be incompetent after these events and that was the reason for the late filing. He stated, "If I do not file this now, I have waived any claim to it. I filed it as soon as I was aware of it. Not being a mental health expert, I wasn't aware."

         In response to the motion suggesting appellant's incompetency, the trial court held an informal competency inquiry. Outside the presence of the jury, defense counsel called four witnesses to testify about appellant's recent behavior. First, Jennifer Doornbos, a consultant for the defense, [3] testified that she believed appellant was "divorced from reality" based on appellant's behavior around the time of the trial proceedings and her history of schizophrenia. With respect to the trial proceedings, Doornbos opined that appellant had no "factual understanding of what was being told to her." Doornbos specifically described an incident with a notepad, a discussion with an expert, and a conversation with appellant. Doornbos explained that the notepad given to appellant for note taking and questions contained only doodles and lengthy rambling thoughts. Doornbos described appellant's markings in the trial notebook as "doodles and hearts" and some lengthy sentences "that were loosely connected and really absent of any sense, basically." She also testified that appellant seemed unable to comprehend what the defense's accident-reconstruction expert told her, despite the expert's use of lay terminology and simple demonstrative explanations. Additionally, Doornbos noted that she was present during two different conversations on two separate days involving appellant and that appellant did not recall the conversation from the prior day. With respect to the possible reasons for appellant's behavior, Doornbos testified that appellant had been previously diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia and prescribed several medications but that she was unsure whether appellant was actually taking them. Doornbos observed appellant had a "very flat affect" and it was possible that she was becoming episodic. Doornbos said it was a "huge concern" that appellant "disassociates and has no insight." Doornbos also observed that appellant had been making verbal "tics" or little "um um" noises approximately "every 30 to 45 seconds" during the trial proceedings the previous day, which could be related to her schizophrenia. Doornbos concluded that, given the prior diagnosis of bipolar schizophrenia and uncertainty as to whether appellant was compliant with her medications, appellant's strange behavior and demeanor indicated that she might not be competent to assist in her own defense. Doornbos noted that appellant had been prescribed various medications including Lithium and Geodon that are "psychotropics for schizophrenia and bipolar, " as well as Valium, but Doornbos did not know if appellant was taking the medications. Doornbos concluded that she believed that appellant did not have a sufficient present ability to consult with the defense team with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.

         Second, James Evans, an accident-reconstruction expert for the defense, testified that appellant seemed unable to rationally understand or interact constructively with him. He described the interactions with appellant as her "not getting it" and "not clicking" and showing more than just disinterest on her part. Although acknowledging that competency was not his field, he testified that he felt that something was "amiss" and that appellant was not able to assist in her defense.

         Third, Charlotte Bush, appellant's sister, testified that appellant's behavior seemed unusually agitated, angry, and fidgety. Bush testified that appellant appeared unwilling to discuss the case with her defense team. She also stated that appellant appeared unable to grasp the points they explained to her. She noted that appellant had been hospitalized approximately two years earlier for bipolar schizophrenia and depression and that appellant's current behavior was similar to her behavior around that time, although "not as bad." Bush testified that appellant had been prescribed medication but did not know if appellant was taking it. She feared that appellant might be approaching an episode or at some stage of an episode. She also testified that it appeared that appellant "did not comprehend the seriousness of the trial" and agreed with counsel that appellant lacked "the present ability to talk with [counsel] with a reasonable degree of rational understanding."

         Fourth, Gary Butler, an attorney unaffiliated with appellant's case, testified that he had observed appellant outside of the courtroom that morning before the trial proceedings began "carrying on a fairly loud conversation by herself." Butler testified that he notified appellant's counsel because Butler was "concerned about her state as she came back in this morning." In response to Butler's comments to defense counsel, counsel informed Butler that he would be raising incompetency that day and asked if Butler would testify about appellant's behavior.

         At the conclusion of the informal inquiry into appellant's competency, the trial court heard the arguments of the parties before it made its ruling. Defense counsel argued that adequate evidence had been adduced to require a formal competency hearing based on the evaluation of an appointed expert. See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 46B.021(b). The State responded that none of the testimony offered would support a finding of incompetence. Rather, the State contended that the testimony demonstrated only that appellant had "realized the hopelessness of her case" and no longer cared about the trial proceedings. After a recess, the trial court found the evidence insufficient to support a finding of incompetence and resumed the trial in the absence of a formal competency hearing.[4]

         B. The ...

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