(CN) - Arkansas courts improperly let a schizophrenic man who raped and killed his 12-year-old niece waive his right to appeal, the state Supreme Court ruled.
Karl Roberts confessed in May 1999 that he had taken his niece, Andria Brewer, to a secluded area, raped her, and strangled her to death to hide what he did.
After Roberts was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in May 2000, he filed to waive his rights to appeal and post-conviction review.
The circuit court in Polk County, Ark., found that Roberts had the ability to knowingly and intelligently waive those rights, and the state Supreme Court affirmed in 2003.
But on the day of his scheduled execution in January 2004, Roberts obtained a federal stay of execution.
That court agreed three years to hold Roberts' petition for habeas corpus in abeyance, giving him an opportunity to "convince the state courts that he did not competently waive his right to appeal and seek state post-conviction relief" and to seek relief for all unexhausted claims.
Roberts filed the necessary petitions and the state Supreme Court agreed to reopen the case in February 2013, demanding an updated competency evaluation.
Before that hearing occurred in September, however, Roberts began walking back his efforts.
In a May 2013 letter to the federal court, Roberts said he no longer wished to proceed with post-conviction relief, claiming he was motivated by a sense of justice and the desire to provide closure to Brewer's family.
He repeated that sentiment at September hearing, and the circuit court dismissed his petition for post-conviction relief, finding that he was competent and had the capacity to waive his post-conviction rights.
With Roberts having changed his mind again, the state Supreme Court reversed 4-3 Thursday.
"Both experts testified that Roberts' mental illness affects his ability to make a rational decision about waving his post-conviction rights," Associate Justice Rhonda Wood wrote for the majority.
Even the state's expert implied that Roberts' psychosis "impacts his ability to choose between life and death and knowingly and intelligently waive his post-conviction rights," Wood added.
Roberts' letters asking for waiver do not sufficiently prove competency, the ruling states.
"Roberts' auditory hallucinations may affect the content of his letters since he frequently hears voices when he writes," Wood wrote. "Despite our belief that the trial court is in the best position to assess credibility and weigh the evidence, in this case we are left with a firm conviction that a mistake has been made. We hold that the circuit court was clearly erroneous when it concluded that Roberts was competent to waive post-conviction review."
The 9-page ruling prompted two dissents.
"The circuit court declined to address [Roberts'] six issues and instead made a general, sweeping finding of competency to waive," Chief Justice Howard Brill wrote in the first, joined by Justice Paul Danielson. "This finding, in my view, does not rise to the level of a 'more exacting duty' required by the circuit court in a death-penalty case."
Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson added: "The circuit court had the first-hand opportunity to observe Roberts and to assess the credibility of the expert witnesses. On this record, the circuit court could well conclude that Roberts understands the choice between life and death and that his decision to waive further review is knowingly and intelligently made."
Roberts was represented by assistant federal defender Scott Braden, who declined to comment on the ruling, and by federal defender Jennifer Horan.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge represented the state with Assistant Attorney General Vada Berger. They did not return an email seeking comment.
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