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Cooper v. Oklahoma

April 16, 1996

BYRON KEITH COOPER, PETITIONER

v.

OKLAHOMA



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Certiorari to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma.

No. 95-5207.

Argued January 17, 1996

Decided April 16, 1996

Oklahoma law presumes that a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial unless he proves his incompetence by clear and convincing evidence. Applying that standard, a judge found petitioner Cooper competent on separate occasions before and during his trial for first degree murder, despite his bizarre behavior and conflicting expert testimony on the issue. In affirming his conviction and death sentence, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his argument that the State's presumption of competence, combined with its clear and convincing evidence standard, placed such an onerous burden on him as to violate due process.

Held: Because Oklahoma's procedural rule allows the State to try a defendant who is more likely than not incompetent, it violates due process. Pp. 5-22.

(a) It is well-settled that the criminal trial of an incompetent defendant violates due process. Medina v. California, Justice Stevens

On Writ of Certiorari to the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma the defendant in a criminal prosecution is presumed to be competent to stand trial unless he proves his incompetence by clear and convincing evidence. Okla. Stat., Tit. 22, Section(s) 1175.4(B) (1991). Under that standard a defendant may be put to trial even though it is more likely than not that he is incompetent. The question we address in this case is whether the application of that standard to petitioner violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

I.

In 1989 petitioner was charged with the brutal killing of an 86-year-old man in the course of a burglary. After an Oklahoma jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and recommended punishment by death, the trial court imposed the death penalty. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.

Petitioner's competence was the focus of significant attention both before and during his trial. On five separate occasions a judge considered whether petitioner had the ability to understand the charges against him and to assist defense counsel. On the first occasion, a pretrial judge relied on the opinion of a clinical psychologist employed by the State to find petitioner incompetent. Based on that determination, he committed petitioner to a state mental health facility for treatment.

Upon petitioner's release from the hospital some three months later, the trial judge heard testimony concerning petitioner's competence from two state-employed psychologists. These experts expressed conflicting opinions regarding petitioner's ability to participate in his defense. The judge resolved the dispute against petitioner, ordering him to proceed to trial.

At the close of a pretrial hearing held one week before the trial was scheduled to begin, the lead defense attorney raised the issue of petitioner's competence for a third time. Counsel advised the court that petitioner was behaving oddly and refusing to communicate with him. Defense counsel opined that it would be a serious matter "if he's not faking." App. 6. After listening to counsel's concerns, however, the judge declined to revisit his earlier determination that petitioner was competent to stand trial.

Petitioner's competence was addressed a fourth time on the first day of trial, when petitioner's bizarre behavior prompted the court to conduct a further competency hearing at which the judge observed petitioner and heard testimony from several lay witnesses, a third psychologist, and petitioner himself. *fn1 The expert concluded that petitioner was presently incompetent and unable to communicate effectively with counsel, but that he could probably achieve competence within six weeks if treated aggressively. While stating that he did not dispute the psychologist's diagnosis, the trial judge ruled against petitioner. In so holding, however, the court voiced uncertainty:

"Well, I think I've used the expression . . . in the past that normal is like us. Anybody that's not like us is not normal, so I don't think normal is a proper definition that we are to use with incompetence. My shirtsleeve opinion of Mr. Cooper is that ...


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