420 U.S. 162 (1975), 73-638, Drope v. Missouri

Docket Nº:No. 73-638
Citation:420 U.S. 162, 95 S.Ct. 896, 43 L.Ed.2d 103
Party Name:Drope v. Missouri
Case Date:February 19, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

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420 U.S. 162 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 896, 43 L.Ed.2d 103




No. 73-638

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 19, 1975

Argued November 13, 1974




In 1969 petitioner was indicted, with two others, for rape of petitioner's wife. Following severance of petitioner's case, he filed a motion for a continuance so that he might be further examined and receive psychiatric treatment, attaching thereto the report of a psychiatrist who had examined him at his counsel's request and had suggested such treatment. The motion was denied, and the case proceeded to trial. Petitioner's wife testified, repeating and confirming information concerning petitioner's "strange behavior" which was contained in the report and stating that she had changed her mind about not wanting to prosecute petitioner because he had tried to kill her on the Sunday prior to trial. On the second day of the trial, petitioner shot himself in a suicide attempt and was hospitalized, but, despite his absence, the trial court denied a motion for a mistrial on the ground that his absence was voluntary, and the trial continued. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and petitioner was sentenced to life imprisonment. His motion for a new trial, asserting that the trial court had erred in proceeding with the trial when no evidence was produced that his absence was voluntary, was denied, the trial court finding again that his absence was voluntary. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed, sustaining that finding and also holding that the trial court's denial of the continuance motion was not an abuse of discretion. Subsequently, petitioner's motion to vacate the conviction and sentence, alleging, inter alia, that his constitutional rights had been violated by the failure to order a pretrial psychiatric examination and by completing the trial in his absence, was denied. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that neither the psychiatric report attached to petitioner's motion for a continuance nor his wife's testimony raised a reasonable doubt of his fitness to proceed, that petitioner's suicide attempt did not create a reasonable doubt of his competence as a matter of law, and that he had failed to demonstrate the inadequacy of the procedures employed for protecting his rights. The court also held that the

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trial court's finding as to voluntary absence was not clearly erroneous.


1. The Missouri courts failed to accord proper weight to the evidence suggesting petitioner's incompetence. When considered together with the information available prior to trial and the testimony of petitioner's wife at trial, the information concerning petitioner's suicide attempt created a sufficient doubt of his competence to stand trial to require further inquiry. Pp. 178-181.

2. Whatever the relationship between mental illness and incompetence to stand trial, in this case, the bearing of the former on the latter was sufficiently likely that, in light of the evidence of petitioner's behavior, including his suicide attempt, and there being no opportunity without his presence to evaluate that bearing in fact, the correct course was to suspend the trial until such an evaluation could be made. Pp. 181-182.

3. Assuming petitioner's right to be present at the trial was one that could be waived, there was an insufficient inquiry to afford a basis for deciding the issue of waiver. P. 182.

4. Petitioner's due process rights would not be adequately protected by remanding the case for a psychiatric examination to determine whether he was, in fact, competent to stand trial in 1969, but the State is free to retry him, assuming [95 S.Ct. 900] that, at the time of such trial, he is competent to be tried. P. 183.

498 S.W.2d 838, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to consider petitioner's claims that he was deprived of due process of law by the failure of the trial court to order a psychiatric

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examination with respect to his competence to stand trial and by the conduct in his absence of a portion of his trial on an indictment charging a capital offense.


In February, 1969, an indictment was returned in the Circuit Court of St. Louis, Mo., charging petitioner and two others with the forcible rape of petitioner's wife. Following severance of petitioner's case from those of the other defendants and a continuance, on May 27, his counsel filed a motion for a continuance until September, in order that petitioner might be examined and receive psychiatric treatment. Treatment had been suggested by a psychiatrist who had examined petitioner at his counsel's request and whose report was attached to the motion.1 On the same date, respondent, through the

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Assistant Circuit Attorney, filed a document stating that the State did not oppose the motion for a psychiatric examination. Apparently no action was taken on the motion, and petitioner's case was continued until June 23, at which time his counsel objected to proceeding with the trial on the ground that he had understood the case would be continued until September, and consequently was not prepared. He objected further

for the reason that the defendant is not a person of sound mind, and should have a further psychiatric examination before the case should be forced to trial.

App. 19. The trial judge noted that the motion for a continuance was not in [95 S.Ct. 901] proper form, and that, although petitioner's counsel had agreed to file another, he had failed to do so, and he overruled his objections and directed that the case proceed to trial.

On June 24, a jury was empaneled, and the prosecution called petitioner's wife as its first witness. She testified that petitioner participated with four of his acquaintances in forcibly raping her and subjecting her to other bizarre abuse and indignities, but that she had resumed living

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with him after the incident on the advice of petitioner's psychiatrist and so that their children would be taken care of. On cross-examination, she testified that she had told petitioner's attorney of her belief that her husband was sick and needed psychiatric care, and that, for these reasons, she had signed a statement disavowing a desire to prosecute. She related that, on several occasions when petitioner did not "get his way or [was] worried about something," he would roll down the stairs. She could explain such behavior only by relating "what they told him many times at City Hospital, that is something he does upon hisself [sic]." Id. at 47. However, she also stated that she was not convinced petitioner was sick after talking to his psychiatrist, and that she had changed her mind about not wanting to prosecute petitioner because, as she testified, he had "tried to choke me, tried to kill me" on the Sunday evening prior to trial. Id. at 52.

The prosecution called three more witnesses, but did not conclude its case, before adjournment on June 24. The following morning, petitioner did not appear. When the trial judge directed counsel to proceed, petitioner's attorney moved for a mistrial "in view of the fact that the defendant, I am informed, shot himself this morning." App. 63. The trial judge denied the motion, stating that he had already decided the matter would proceed for trial, and when petitioner's counsel complained of the difficulty of proceeding without a client, the trial judge replied that the difficulty was brought about by petitioner, who was on bond and had a responsibility to be present. The prosecution then called four more witnesses and, after producing proof of a prior conviction,2 rested its case. Petitioner's "Motion for Verdict of Acquittal," including,

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in effect, a renewal of the motion for a mistrial, was denied, and his counsel stated that he had "no evidence to produce at this time under the circumstances." Id. at 64. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and on July 21, 1969, petitioner, who had been in the hospital for three weeks recovering from a bullet wound in the abdomen, appeared, and the trial court fixed the penalty at life imprisonment.

Petitioner filed a motion for a new trial, the burden of which was that the trial court had erred in proceeding with the trial when no evidence had been produced that his absence from the trial was voluntary. A hearing was held before the judge who had presided at trial. Petitioner testified that, on June 25, he had gone to his brother's house, and that he remembered nothing concerning the shooting except that he felt a burning pain in his stomach and later woke up in the hospital. He testified he did not remember talking to anyone at the hospital. The State presented evidence that, upon admission to the hospital, petitioner stated that he had shot himself because of "`some problem with the law,'" id. at 90, and that he had told a policeman he had shot himself because "he was supposed to go to court for rape, and he didn't do it; he rather be [sic] dead than to go to trial for something he didn't do." Id. at 97. The trial judge denied the motion. Stating that, on the morning of petitioner's failure to appear, he had received information on the telephone which was checked with the hospital, the judge concluded that petitioner had the burden of showing that his absence was not voluntary, and found on the basis of the evidence that [95 S.Ct. 902] his absence "`was due to his own voluntary act in shooting himself; done for the very purpose of avoiding trial.'" Id. at 103.

The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed, accepting the trial court's finding, in ruling on petitioner's motion for a

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new trial, that his absence was voluntary,3 and holding that there was "no logical basis" for...

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