HOUSTON (CN) - A bipolar Texan who told a judge he was "seeing lights blink" before he was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault should have undergone a competency hearing, a federal judge ruled.
Pending the completion of any appeals to the 5th Circuit or U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt on Tuesday ordered Michael George LaHood released from prison unless Texas moves for a new trial within 60 days.
LaHood, 51, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in April 2004 after a Harris County jury found him guilty of the aggravated kidnapping and sexual assault of his girlfriend.
Shelly Mitchell testified during LaHood's trial that they were living together in Aransas Pass, Texas, in August 2003, where they passed their days taking illegal drugs and fishing.
LaHood packed up Mitchell's car with fishing gear and dirty clothes one day in September 2003 and Mitchell thought they were going to fish and wash laundry, according to the summary of the case in Hoyt's new ruling.
Mitchell said that she tried to back out when she realized LaHood planned to take her out of Aransas Pass, but he said she didn't have a choice.
"The background facts are not in dispute," Judge Hoyt wrote, citing a Texas Court of Appeals ruling affirming LaHood's conviction.
Mitchell tried to jump out of the moving car and LaHood pulled her hair, beat her head into the console, bit her arms, choked her and threatened to cut her throat. He threatened to beat her beyond recognition and cut off her tattoos so her body couldn't be identified, Hoyt wrote.
LaHood had a knife, Mitchell testified, and she eventually stopped trying to escape as LaHood drove toward Houston, where he said they were going to get some "good dope."
In Houston, LaHood stopped in a parking lot, made Mitchell lie down in the back seat and tied her ankles up. LaHood then drove to another parking lot and sexually assaulted her, then fell asleep next to her.
They checked into a hotel room they used as a base for trips out to buy alcohol and drugs. During one of these outings, police pulled them over for a faulty inspection sticker. Mitchell told the officers LaHood had kidnapped her and they arrested him.
Former Harris County District Judge Susan Valentine Brown presided over LaHood's trial, during which he yelled several times. He also griped to his defense attorney that jailers were not giving him medication for his bipolar disorder, that he was seeing lights blink and that he could not follow the proceedings.
LaHood tried to kill himself after the jury found him guilty on April 30, 2004. He was hospitalized.
At his sentencing hearing a week later, he again complained about his medication and asked for a competency evaluation. Judge Valentine Brown allegedly replied: "I'm sure they'll take of that when you get to TDCJ."
TDCJ is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state prisons.
LaHood appealed his sentence to the 14th Texas Court of Appeals and up to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals.
While the Texas Court of Appeals found that the work of LaHood's state-appointed defense attorney Leah Borg was "deficient," that did not win it over.
"We are of the opinion that applicant was not prejudiced by his trial counsel's deficient performance because he has not met his burden of proof that, but for his trial counsel's deficient performance, there is a reasonable probability that a fact-finder would have found him incompetent to stand trial," Judge Barbara Hervey wrote for the court in June 2013.
In his federal habeas application, LaHood again argued that Borg provided "ineffective assistance" by not looking into his mental health and not asking the judge whether he was competent to stand trial.
He also claims that Valentine Brown denied him due process by failing to order a competency hearing and letting him stand trial.
LaHood claims he told Borg before trial that he was taking Zoloft, Risperidol and Zyprexa for his mental illness, and she thought that because he was medicated he was competent.
Hoyt granted LaHood habeas relief Tuesday - a rare departure from the typical denial of habeas applications that crowd federal judges' dockets.
Hoyt cited an affidavit submitted by psychiatrist Dr. Victor Serafino in LaHood's state habeas proceeding.
Serafino determined that jail staff had not properly adjusted LaHood's medications before the stress-inducing trial, and that LaHood's decision to testify was not rational.
"While it is not this federal habeas court's role to question a state court's interpretation of state law, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires a trial court to conduct an inquiry into a defendant's competency when there is reason to doubt that the defendant is competent. The state appellate court's conclusion that there was no such reason is unreasonable," Hoyt wrote in his 21-page order.
Hoyt ordered the TDCJ to release LaHood from prison unless Texas moves for a new trial within 60 days. He stayed the ruling pending completion of any appeals to the 5th Circuit or Supreme Court.
LaHood's attorney, Anthony Smith of San Antonio, said on Wednesday he had not yet spoken to his client but he is "sure that he will be most gratified" by the ruling.
"The federal court hopefully sent a clear message to state prosecutors, trial and appellate courts that federal constitutional protections must be followed by state authorities in circumstances involving the prosecution of a seriously mentally ill defendant," Smith said. "Persons with mental illness are often lost in the machinery of the criminal justice system and attorneys and judges sometimes lose sight of how vulnerable these defendants are. ... Judge Hoyt's well reasoned decision is a victory not only for Mr. LaHood, but for many other persons so afflicted."
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