Judge’s Possibile Senility Didn’t Taint Sentencing

     (CN) – The divided 9th Circuit refused to grant habeas relief to a man sentenced to death row by a judge who was either eccentric or in the grips of senility.
     In March 1982, Ronald Deere, aka Running Deer, made good on his promise to kill everyone in Cindy Gleason’s family if she ever broke up with him. He shot and killed Cindy’s brother-in-law and her two nieces, ages 7 and 2.
     The court appointed Deere a lawyer after his arrest, but Deere said he wished to plead guilty, even though he knew he could face the death penalty. Before entering the plea, two court-appointed mental health professionals interviewed Deere and found that he understood the possible consequences of his decision.
     The day of his arrest, Deere told Dr. Tommy Bolger, a psychiatrist for Riverside County: “I don’t know why I did this. I hope that if I am convicted that I will get the gas chamber.”
     When asked about the possibility of an insanity defense, Deere’s attorney, Glenn Jones, told the trial judge: “I think it’s rather obvious that a man’s pleading guilty in a capital case is rare. And when I began this case, I didn’t even consider – it didn’t even enter my mind that I would consent to such a plea. And Mr. Deere has slowly but surely persuaded me that this is what he wishes to do, that he’s competent to do it, and he’s prepared to take the full responsibility for his actions. And I can find absolutely no basis, in my experience, training or the investigation of this case, which would suggest he should not be permitted to do exactly what he wants to do, knowing the consequences of his act.”
     Deere also told psychologist William Jones he would prefer death to life in prison.
     Judge Fred Metheny accepted Deere’s guilty plea, and sentenced him to death.
     In Deere’s subsequent habeas petition, however, he argued that his lawyer was ineffective for failing to request a full-blown competency hearing.
     A Los Angeles federal judge granted the motion, but a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed Monday.
     “We hold today that even assuming for the sake of argument that his lawyer should have requested a plenary competency hearing – despite the reports of the two mental health examiners, despite counsel’s own observations of Deere based on his extensive interaction with him, despite the observations of the prosecutor and the judge, despite Deere’s rational reasons for wanting to plead guilty – Deere nevertheless suffered no prejudice from the lack of a competency hearing because there was no reasonable probability that he would have been found incompetent to plead guilty,” Judge Barry Silverman wrote for the San Francisco-based majority.
     There was “literally no contemporaneous evidence that Deere lacked the capacity to understand his options and to make a rational decision to accept responsibility for what he did,” Silverman added.
     Deere also failed to show that the trial judge who presided over his plea, Judge Fred Metheny, was senile in 1986 and not mentally fit to judge, according to the ruling.
     “The most Deere offered were anecdotes recounted by a grand total of three lawyers, anecdotes that are either hearsay, or that do not shed light on Judge Metheny’s mental status in 1986, or that reveal no more than eccentricity as distinguished from dementia,” Silverman wrote.
     In addition, the California Supreme Court reviewed Metheny’s handling of the case, and “found that he was scrupulously fair and objective throughout the proceeding,” the 63-page ruling states.
     Judge William Fletcher was less blase about the dementia issue in a 51-page dissent.
     “When Judge Metheny resentenced Deere to death in 1986, he was mentally incompetent,” Fletcher wrote. “Three attorneys who appeared before Judge Metheny during this period provided affidavits in support of Deere’s state and federal habeas petitions. The attorneys describe Judge Metheny as incompetent and report that his incompetence was general knowledge in the courthouse. The record of Deere’s resentencing also shows Judge Metheny’s incompetence.
     “I believe the evidence already in the record is sufficient to demonstrate that Judge Metheny was mentally incompetent when he resentenced Deere to death in 1986, but that is not the question before us today. The question now before us is much easier: Should the district court have granted an evidentiary hearing on Judge Metheny’s mental competence? The majority holds that such a hearing was not required. I disagree.
     “It is an open secret that some judges stay on the bench too long. Formal procedures exist for removing senile judges, but they are rarely employed. Attorneys hesitate to challenge judges they appear before, and judges hesitate to blow the whistle on their colleagues. I am as reluctant as most judges to seek to remove a senile judge or to set aside a decision reached by such a judge. But when a man’s life is at stake, I cannot stay silent.”

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