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Maxwell v. Roe

May 20, 2010

CLIFTON MAXWELL, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
ERNIE ROE, WARDEN CALIFORNIA STATE PRISON, LOS ANGELES COUNTY, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Stephen G. Larson, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No.5:01-cv-00131-SGL-RZ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paez, Circuit Judge

FOR PUBLICATION

Argued and Submitted December 10, 2009 -- Pasadena, California

Before: Harry Pregerson, John T. Noonan and Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

A criminal defendant has a constitutional due process right not to be tried or convicted while incompetent to stand trial. This right not only assures that a defendant has the present ability to consult with counsel, to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, and to aid in the preparation of his defense, Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960), it is "fundamental to an adversary system of justice." Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 172 (1975).

Here, Clifton Wayne Maxwell appeals from the district court's judgment denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Maxwell argues that at the time of his January 1998 state court trial for first degree murder he was incompetent to stand trial and that the state court denied him due process in failing to hold, sua sponte, a competency hearing. At the time of trial, Maxwell had a history of mental illness, frequently refused to take his prescribed antipsychotic medications, was unable to verbally or physically control himself in the courtroom, and exhibited increasingly paranoid and psychotic behavior that impaired his communication with defense counsel and reasoning regarding his defense. Furthermore, during the trial, Maxwell attempted suicide and spent a substantial portion of the trial involuntarily committed to a hospital psychiatric ward. Despite these circumstances, the trial judge never doubted Maxwell's competence.

Because we conclude that the state appellate court's decision to affirm the trial court's finding that Maxwell was not entitled to a hearing on his competence was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence known by the trial judge at the time of trial and an unreasonable application of federal law as established by Drope, and Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966), we reverse and remand.*fn1

I. Factual and Procedural History

On December 27, 1994, Maxwell discovered his car had been stolen from his stepfather's garage. Several days later, Maxwell and four other men drove to the home of Jerry Jefferson, the person who they believed stole Maxwell's car. Although Maxwell was unarmed, three of the other four men were armed. After the missing car was found in Jefferson's garage, two of the armed men approached the house, fired shots, and killed Jefferson.

In July 1995, Maxwell and the two shooters were charged in Riverside County Superior Court with first degree murder. The three defendants were tried before two separate juries: one for Maxwell and one for the other two co-defendants. As pretrial proceedings progressed, Maxwell's defense counsel expressed doubt about Maxwell's competence to stand trial. The trial court suspended criminal proceedings pursuant to California Penal Code section 1368 and ordered a competence determination. Between June and October 1996, five psychiatrists evaluated Maxwell. Four of the five opined that Maxwell was feigning or at least grossly embellishing a psychosis and that he was competent to stand trial. The fifth doctor filed a report in which he concluded that Maxwell was incompetent to stand trial. In December 1996, after considering the psychiatrists' reports and opinions, Judge Christian F. Thierback of the Riverside County Superior Court found Maxwell competent to stand trial and reinstated criminal proceedings.

In January 1998, Maxwell's case was assigned to Judge Patrick F. Magers for trial. As we explain in greater detail below, during his trial, Maxwell's behavior in and outside the courtroom was erratic, irrational, and disruptive. Indeed, before the jury ever entered the courtroom, Judge Magers found Maxwell posed a danger to court staff and defense counsel and had Maxwell removed. During trial, Maxwell's counsel repeatedly alerted the court that Maxwell's condition was worsening and that communication with Maxwell was severely strained. The trial judge reviewed the 1996 psychiatric competency evaluations and concluded that any sign that Maxwell was mentally impaired was feigned. Approximately half-way through the trial, Maxwell attempted suicide with a razor blade and was sent to Riverside General Hospital for a 72-hour psychiatric hold. The court concluded that the suicide attempt was feigned and accordingly found that Maxwell's absence was voluntary. After two psychiatrists evaluated Maxwell, his initial 72-hour psychiatric hold was extended to a 14-day involuntary psychiatric hold. Nevertheless, the trial proceeded. After a ten-day trial that spanned the month of January, a jury that never saw Maxwell convicted him of first degree murder. One of Maxwell's co-defendants was acquitted and the other was convicted of second degree murder. The court sentenced Maxwell to prison for twenty-five years to life.

Maxwell appealed. While his appeal was pending, Maxwell also petitioned the state court of appeal for a writ of habeas corpus. In October 1999, in an unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Maxwell's conviction and denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The California Supreme Court denied Maxwell's petition for review without comment. Thereafter, on two separate occasions, Maxwell petitioned the state supreme court for habeas relief. Both times the court denied his habeas petition without comment.

In February 2001, Maxwell filed a timely petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. The assigned magistrate judge prepared a Report and Recommendation recommending that the petition be denied and dismissed with prejudice. The report found that despite Maxwell's "certainly disruptive and allegedly suicidal behavior, [and] extensive pharmacopeia of prescribed antipsychotic medication," the evidence was "insufficient to raise a bona fide doubt that [Maxwell], previously diagnosed as competent and malingering, had become truly incompetent;" and therefore, "the state courts... neither acted in a manner contrary to federal law as determined by the Supreme Court nor unreasonably applied that law." In November 2001, the district court adopted the magistrate judge's findings and conclusions and denied Maxwell's petition. Maxwell appealed, arguing that he was incompetent to stand trial and that the trial court's failure to conduct a competency hearing when presented with substantial evidence of incompetence violated his due process rights.

In Maxwell v. Roe, 113 Fed. Appx. 213 (9th Cir. 2004), we reviewed the district court's November 2001 judgment. There, we noted that

Maxwell's behavior was erratic whether he was in court or in jail. He was unable to control himself in pretrial proceedings and was involuntarily committed several times while in jail awaiting trial, and once during trial. Because he repeatedly waived his right to be present at trial, the jury that convicted Maxwell never actually saw him.

Maxwell, 113 Fed. Appx. at 216. We further noted that "Maxwell's sustained erratic behavior, in light of the long interval between his competency evaluations and his trial" presented a relatively "compelling argument for incompetency...." Id. However, because it was not clear from the record what facts relating to Maxwell's competence were known by the state trial court at the time of Maxwell's January 1998 murder trial, we reversed and remanded the case to the district court for an evidentiary hearing. Id. We explained:

[W]e are not making a substantive determination on Maxwell's petition because it is unclear what evidence was properly before the state court and the consequent responsibility of the trial court in making the determination of Maxwell's competence to stand trial.... In light of the trial court's continuing responsibility to ensure that a defendant is not tried while incompetent, we are concerned about the following facts. First,... Maxwell was determined numerous times to be "gravely disabled" or a danger to himself or others as a result of mental disorder. Second, Maxwell's behavior at trial was erratic and strange. And, third, during the course of trial Maxwell was involuntarily hospitalized for attempted suicide.... Since we do not know how much of this evidence was available to the trial court at the time of Maxwell's trial, we remand to the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing to consider the reasonableness of the trial court's determination that Maxwell was competent to stand trial.

Id. at 215-16 (footnotes omitted). On remand, the assigned magistrate judge conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine what evidence was properly before the state trial court at the time of the January 1998 trial. Although the hearing revealed additional information of Maxwell's incompetence that the trial judge knew at the time of trial, the magistrate judge's report again recommended denying Maxwell habeas relief. The magistrate judge acknowledged "the dangers- pointed out by the Ninth Circuit-of a judge reflexively relying on a prior, possibly stale determination that a criminal defendant was competent and malingering." However, after weighing the evidence tending to support the trial court's decision against the evidence not supporting the court's decision, the magistrate judge concluded that "the additional evidence [deduced during the hearing]... still would have permitted the judge reasonably, if perhaps incorrectly, to have concluded ...


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