223 F.3d 1103 (9th Cir. 2000), 99-55662, Torres v. Prunty

Docket Nº:99-55662
Citation:223 F.3d 1103
Party Name:DAMACIO Y. TORRES, Petitioner-Appellee, v. K.W. PRUNTY, in his capacity as Warden, Respondent-Appellant.
Case Date:September 08, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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223 F.3d 1103 (9th Cir. 2000)

DAMACIO Y. TORRES, Petitioner-Appellee,


K.W. PRUNTY, in his capacity as Warden, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 99-55662

Office of the Circuit Executive

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 8, 2000

Submitted July 13, 20001

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Kyle S. Brodie, Deputy Attorney General, Los Angeles, California, for the respondent-appellant.

Marilyn Drath, Sausalito, California, for the petitionerappellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California, D.C. No. CV-97-03079-DDP-AIJ; Dean D. Pregerson, District Judge, Presiding

Before: William C. Canby, Jr., Stephen Reinhardt, and Ferdinand F. Fernandez, Circuit Judges.

CANBY, Circuit Judge:

The State of California appeals from the district court's grant of habeas corpus relief to Damacio Torres under 28 U.S.C. S 2254. The district court concluded that Torres's due process rights were violated when the state trial court failed to hold a hearing to determine whether Torres was competent to stand trial, despite considerable evidence suggesting that he was not. See Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 385 (1966). The state trial and appellate courts' findings that the evidence did not require a competency hearing under Pate are findings of fact to which we must defer unless they are "unreasonable" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. S 2254(d)(2). See Maggio v. Fulford, 462 U.S. 111, 117 (1983) (per curiam) (treating question whether evidence required competency hearing as a question of fact). We conclude that these findings were "unreasonable" within the meaning of S 2254(d)(2), and that Torres was entitled to a competency hearing under Pate. We therefore affirm the district court's grant of habeas relief.


On February 8, 1993, Damacio Torres entered the County/ USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, where he shot three physicians and took a fourth physician and a nurse hostage. After a short standoff, Torres released his hostages and was apprehended.

In the ensuing months, Dr. Stephen Wells, a psychologist appointed by the court, examined Torres for a total of ten and one-half hours. Wells diagnosed Torres as having a severe delusional (paranoid) disorder. Torres was not schizophrenic and suffered no hallucinations, but his psychotic delusions were extreme. Wells administered a standard personality inventory test and opined that Torres registered "one of the most disturbed profiles on this instrument seen by this evaluator, pointing clearly to the presence of psychotic delusional ideation." Torres, concluded Wells, believed himself to be the "victim of a medical conspiracy." Torres suffered from delusions that:

physicians at County/USC had injected him with the AIDS virus;

physicians at County/USC had conspired with those at other clinics by means of a computerized medical records system to ensure that he received no treatment;

one of the goals of the conspiracy was to see him evicted into the street where he would die "like a dog;"

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he was tracked and followed by physicians at County/USC who concealed their identities;

a physician at County/USC recently and deliberately tore his intestine with a tool inserted into his anus;

he emanated a stench and odor so powerful that it could be smelled throughout his hotel and threatened his eviction; and,

his body and limbs were so distorted that he was a freak of nature.2

In addition to identifying Torres's delusional beliefs, Wells tested to determine whether Torres could have been lying about these delusions. He concluded that Torres was "fully credible and not seeking consciously to deceive in any way." On the strength of these and other findings, Wells concluded that Torres was unable to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the offense and appeared to satisfy the legal test for insanity. In a one-sentence note, Wells also opined that Torres was competent to stand trial.

Torres initially pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The court then appointed physicians to assess Torres's sanity: Dr. Wells for the defense, and Dr. Sharma for the State. Dr. Sharma concluded that Torres was sane at the time of his offenses. Both Dr. Wells and Dr. Sharma filed reports with the court. Six months after his initial appearance, Torres again appeared in court and withdrew his insanity plea, even though his counsel refused to join in the withdrawal. Torres sought to have a new lawyer appointed, or to represent himself; the court refused. The court never addressed the question of whether Torres was competent to stand trial.

In the middle of Torres's trial, his counsel informed the court that she believed that there might be a doubt about Torres's competence. In a colloquy between Torres's counsel and the trial court judge, which we relate in full below, the judge stated that Torres was not entitled to a competency hearing under Pate. Torres was subsequently convicted of three counts of attempted premeditated murder and two counts of false imprisonment of a hostage.

Torres's direct and collateral appeals were denied by the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal found that no competency hearing was required under Pate. Torres then filed this federal petition for habeas corpus. The district court granted relief, but did not hold an evidentiary hearing.


The sole issue on appeal (and the sole issue presented by Torres's petition for habeas corpus) is whether the state trial judge violated Torres's due process rights by failing to hold a competency hearing to determine whether Torres was competent to stand trial.3 The substantive standard for determining competence to stand trial is whether Torres had " `sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding . . .[and] a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.' " Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960) (per curiam). The due process issue directly raised by Torres, however, is not whether he was competent, but whether he was entitled to a hearing to determine his competence."[W]here

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the evidence raises a `bona fide doubt' as to a defendant's competence to stand trial, the trial judge on his own motion must . . . conduct a hearing to determine competency to stand trial." De Kaplany v. Enomoto, 540 F.2d 975, 979 (9th Cir. 1976) (en banc); see Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 172-73 (1975); Pate, 383 U.S. at 385 (establishing right to hearing).4

The district court found a violation of Pate; it did not reach the substantive question of whether Torres was competent under Dusky. We review de novo the district court's decision to grant habeas relief under Pate. Houston v. Roe, 177 F.3d 901, 905 (9th Cir. 1999), cert. denied, 120 S.Ct. 1168 (2000).

A. Standard of review applicable to state court findings

Before turning to the merits of Torres's claim, we address the standard of review to be applied to the state trial and appellate courts' determinations that no hearing was required under Pate. Like the district court, we are bound to apply the standards set out in 28 U.S.C. S 2254(d) to the state courts' determinations that there was no "bona fide doubt" regarding Torres's competence. Section 2254(d) permits us to grant relief only if the state court's adjudication: (1) was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court," or (2) "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. S 2254(d)(1), (2); Williams v. Taylor, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 1523 (2000).

The state courts correctly identified Pate as the controlling standard, and they did not reach a result different from Pate on indistinguishable facts; their determination therefore was not "contrary to" clearly established Supreme Court law. See Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1519. But the decision that the evidence did not require a Pate hearing could be either "an unreasonable application" of Pate (under the second clause of S 2254(d)(1)) or "an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented" in state court (under S 2254(d)(2)). Because the Supreme Court has treated the question whether a competency hearing is required as an issue of fact, see Maggio, 462 U.S. at 117, we are inclined to analyze the state court's decision in this case as a potentially unreasonable determination of the facts.

If we are wrong, and the issue is better characterized as one of "unreasonable application" of Pate under S 2254(d)(1), it makes no difference for purposes of the standard of review. With respect to the "unreasonable application " clause, the Supreme Court has made clear that unreasonableness means more than mere incorrectness. See Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1522. It is an objective standard, however, and does not require that all reasonable jurists would agree that the determination was unreasonable. See id. at 1521-22. In light of these pronouncements from Williams and the purposes of the amended S 2254, we have recently concluded that the "unreasonable application"

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standard of S 2254(d)(1) is equivalent to the "clearly erroneous" standard that we apply to review of factual determinations by district courts. See Van Tran v. Lindsey, 212 F.3d 1143, 1153-54 (9th Cir. 2000). We see no reason why this standard of unreasonableness for purposes of the "unreasonable application" clause of S 2254(d)(1) would not apply as well to "unreasonable determination...

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