509 U.S. 389 (1993), 92-725, Godinez v. Moran

Docket Nº:Case No. 92-725
Citation:509 U.S. 389, 113 S.Ct. 2680, 125 L.Ed.2d 321, 61 U.S.L.W. 4749
Party Name:GODINEZ, WARDEN v. MORAN
Case Date:June 24, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 389

509 U.S. 389 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 2680, 125 L.Ed.2d 321, 61 U.S.L.W. 4749

GODINEZ, WARDEN

v.

MORAN

Case No. 92-725

United States Supreme Court

June 24, 1993

Argued April 21, 1993

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

After respondent Moran pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and two psychiatrists concluded that he was competent to stand trial, he informed the Nevada trial court that he wished to discharge his attorneys and change his pleas to guilty. The court found that Moran understood "the nature of the criminal charges against him" and was "able to assist in his defense"; that he was "knowingly and intelligently" waiving his right to the assistance of counsel; and that his guilty pleas were "freely and voluntarily" given. He was ultimately sentenced to death. When Moran subsequently sought state postconviction relief, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing before rejecting his claim that he was mentally incompetent to represent himself, and the State Supreme Court dismissed his appeal. A Federal District Court denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It concluded that due process required the trial court to hold a hearing to evaluate and determine Moran's competency before it accepted his decisions to waive counsel and plead guilty. It also found that the postconviction hearing did not cure the error, holding that the trial court's ruling was premised on the wrong legal standard because competency to waive constitutional rights requires a higher level of mental functioning than that required to stand trial. The court reasoned that, while a defendant is competent to stand trial if he has a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings and is capable of assisting his counsel, he is competent to waive counsel or plead guilty only if he has the capacity for reasoned choice among the available alternatives.

Held:

The competency standard for pleading guilty or waiving the right to counsel is the same as the competency standard for standing trial: whether the defendant has "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 (per curiam). There is no reason for the competency standard for either of those decisions to be higher than that for standing trial. The decision to plead guilty, though profound, is no more complicated than the sum total of decisions that a defendant may have to make during the course of a trial, such as

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whether to testify, whether to waive a jury trial, and whether to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution. Nor does the decision to waive counsel require an appreciably higher level of mental functioning than the decision to waive other constitutional rights. A higher standard is not necessary in order to ensure that a defendant is competent to represent himself, because the ability to do so has no bearing upon his competence to choose self-representation, Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806,836. When, in Westbrook v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 150 (per curiam), this Court vacated a lower court ruling because there had been no "hearing or inquiry into the issue of [the petitioner's] competence to waive his constitutional right to the assistance of counsel," it did not mean to suggest that the Dusky formulation is not a high enough standard in cases in which the defendant seeks to waive counsel. Rather, the "competence to waive" language was simply a shorthand for the "intelligent and competent waiver" requirement of Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458,468. Thus, Westbrook stands only for the unremarkable proposition that when a defendant seeks to waive his right to counsel, a determination that he is competent to stand trial is not enough; the waiver must also be intelligent and voluntary before it can be accepted. While States are free to adopt competency standards that are more elaborate than the Dusky formulation, the Due Process Clause does not impose them. Pp. 396-402.

972 F.2d 263, reversed and remanded.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, O'Connor, and Souter, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II-B, and III of which Scalia and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Scalia, J., joined, post, p. 402. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stevens, J., joined, post, p. 409.

David F. Sarnowski, Chief Deputy Attorney General of Nevada, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief were Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General, and Brooke A. Nielsen, Assistant Attorney General.

Amy L. Wax argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With her on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Bryson, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Joel M. Gershowitz.

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Cal J. Potter III, by appointment of the Court, 506 U.S. 1046, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Edward M. Chikofsky.[*]

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether the competency standard for pleading guilty or waiving the right to counsel is higher than the competency standard for standing trial. We hold that it is not.

I

On August 2, 1984, in the early hours of the morning, respondent entered the Red Pearl Saloon in Las Vegas, Nevada, and shot the bartender and a patron four times each with an automatic pistol. He then walked behind the bar and removed the cash register. Nine days later, respondent arrived at the apartment of his former wife and opened fire on her; five of his seven shots hit their target. Respondent then shot himself in the abdomen and attempted, without success, to slit his wrists. Of the four victims of respondent's gunshots, only respondent himself survived. On August 13, respondent summoned police to his hospital bed and confessed to the killings.

After respondent pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder, the trial court ordered that he be examined by a pair of psychiatrists, both of whom concluded that he was competent to stand trial.[1] The State thereafter announced

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its intention to seek the death penalty. On November 28, 1984, 2 ½ months after the psychiatric evaluations, respondent again appeared before the trial court. At this time respondent informed the court that he wished to discharge his attorneys and change his pleas to guilty. The reason for the request, according to respondent, was to prevent the presentation of mitigating evidence at his sentencing.

On the basis of the psychiatric reports, the trial court found that respondent

"is competent in that he knew the nature and quality of his acts, had the capacity to determine right from wrong; that he understands the nature of the criminal charges against him and is able to assist in his defense of such charges, or against the pronouncement of the judgment thereafter; that he knows the consequences of entering a plea of guilty to the charges; and that he can intelligently and knowingly waive his constitutional right to assistance of an attorney." App. 21.

The court advised respondent that he had a right both to the assistance of counsel and to self-representation, warned him of the "dangers and disadvantages" of self-representation, id., at 22, inquired into his understanding of the proceedings and his awareness of his rights, and asked why he had chosen to represent himself. It then accepted respondent's waiver of counsel. The court also accepted respondent's guilty pleas, but not before it had determined that respondent was not pleading guilty in response to threats or promises, that he understood the nature of the charges against him and the consequences of pleading guilty, that he was aware of the

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rights he was giving up, and that there was a factual basis for the pleas. The trial court explicitly found that respondent was "knowingly and intelligently" waiving his right to the assistance of counsel, ibid., and that his guilty pleas were "freely and voluntarily" given, id., at 64.[2]

On January 21, 1985, a three-judge court sentenced respondent to death for each of the murders. The Supreme Court of Nevada affirmed respondent's sentences for the Red Pearl Saloon murders, but reversed his sentence for the murder of his ex-wife and remanded for imposition of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Moran v. State, 103 Nev. 138, 734 P.2d 712 (1987).

On July 30, 1987, respondent filed a petition for post-conviction relief in state court. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court rejected respondent's claim that he was "mentally incompetent to represent himself," concluding that "the record clearly shows that he was examined by two psychiatrists both of whom declared [him] competent." App. to Pet. for Cert. D-8. The Supreme Court of Nevada dismissed respondent's appeal, Moran v. Warden, 105 Nev. 1041, 810 P.2d 335, and we denied certiorari, 493 U.S. 874(1989).

Respondent then filed a habeas petition in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada. The District Court denied the petition, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. 972 F.2d 263 (1992). The Court of Appeals concluded that the "record in this case" should have led the trial court to "entertai[n] a good faith doubt about [respondent's] competency to make a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent

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waiver of constitutional rights," id., at 265,[3] and that the Due Process Clause therefore "required the court to hold a hearing to evaluate and determine [respondent's] competency . . . before it accepted his decision to discharge counsel and change his pleas," ibid. Rejecting petitioner's argument that the trial court's...

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