517 U.S. 348 (1996), 95-5207, Cooper v. Oklahoma

Docket Nº:Case No. 95-5207
Citation:517 U.S. 348, 116 S.Ct. 1373, 134 L.Ed.2d 498, 64 U.S.L.W. 4255
Case Date:April 16, 1996
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 348

517 U.S. 348 (1996)

116 S.Ct. 1373, 134 L.Ed.2d 498, 64 U.S.L.W. 4255




Case No. 95-5207

United States Supreme Court

April 16, 1996

Argued January 17, 1996



Oklahoma law presumes that a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial unless he proves his incompetence by clear and convincing evidence. Applying that standard, a judge found petitioner Cooper competent on separate occasions before and during his trial for first-degree murder, despite his bizarre behavior and conflicting expert testimony on the issue. In affirming his conviction and death sentence, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his argument that the State's presumption of competence, combined with its clear and convincing evidence standard, placed such an onerous burden on him as to violate due process.


Because Oklahoma's procedural rule allows the State to try a defendant who is more likely than not incompetent, it violates due process. Pp. 354-369.

(a) It is well settled that the criminal trial of an incompetent defendant violates due process. Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 449, establishes that a State may presume that the defendant is competent and require him to prove incompetence by a preponderance of the evidence. Such a presumption does not offend a " 'principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,' " id., at 445, for it affects the outcome "only in a narrow class of cases . . . where the evidence that a defendant is competent is just as strong as the evidence that he is incompetent," id., at 449. This case, however, presents the quite different question whether a State may proceed with a criminal trial after a defendant has shown that he is more likely than not incompetent. Pp. 354-356.

(b) Oklahoma's rule has no roots in historical practice. Both early English and American cases suggest that the common-law standard of proof was preponderance of the evidence. That this same standard is currently used by 46 States and the federal courts indicates that the vast majority of jurisdictions remain persuaded that Oklahoma's heightened standard is not necessary to vindicate the State's interest in prompt and orderly disposition of criminal cases. The near-uniform application of a standard that is more protective of the defendant's rights than Oklahoma's rule supports the conclusion that the heightened standard offends a deeply rooted principle of justice. Pp. 356-362.

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(c) Oklahoma's rule does not exhibit "fundamental fairness" in operation. An erroneous determination of competence has dire consequences for a defendant who has already demonstrated that he is more likely than not incompetent, threatening the basic fairness of the trial itself. A defendant's inability to communicate effectively with counsel may leave him unable to exercise other rights deemed essential to a fair trial—e. g., choosing to plead guilty, waiving his privilege against compulsory self-incrimination by taking the witness stand, or waiving his rights to a jury trial or to cross-examine witnesses—and to make a myriad of smaller decisions concerning the course of his defense. These risks outweigh the State's interest in the efficient operation of its criminal justice system. Difficulty in ascertaining whether a defendant is incompetent or malingering may make it appropriate to place the burden of proof on him, but it does not justify the additional onus of an especially high standard of proof. Pp. 362-367.

(d) Although it is normally within a State's power to establish the procedures through which its laws are given effect, the power to regulate procedural burdens is subject to proscription under the Due Process Clause when, as here, the procedures do not sufficiently protect a fundamental constitutional right. Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, distinguished. The decision herein is in complete accord with the ruling in Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, that due process requires a clear and convincing evidence standard of proof in involuntary civil commitment proceedings. That ruling protects an individual's fundamental liberty interest, while the ruling in this case safeguards the fundamental right not to stand trial while incompetent. Pp. 367-369.

889 P.2d 293, reversed and remanded.

Robert A. Ravitz argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.

W. A. Drew Edmondson, Attorney General of Oklahoma, argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Sandra D. Howard, Assistant Attorney General.[*]

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Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Oklahoma the defendant in a criminal prosecution is presumed to be competent to stand trial unless he proves his incompetence by clear and convincing evidence. Okla. Stat., Tit. 22, § 1175.4(B) (1991). Under that standard a defendant may be put to trial even though it is more likely than not that he is incompetent. The question we address in this case is whether the application of that standard to petitioner violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.


In 1989 petitioner was charged with the brutal killing of an 86-year-old man in the course of a burglary. After an Oklahoma jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and recommended punishment by death, the trial court imposed the death penalty. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.

Petitioner's competence was the focus of significant attention both before and during his trial. On five separate occasions a judge considered whether petitioner had the ability to understand the charges against him and to assist defense counsel. On the first occasion, a pretrial judge relied on the opinion of a clinical psychologist employed by the State to find petitioner incompetent. Based on that determination, he committed petitioner to a state mental health facility for treatment.

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Upon petitioner's release from the hospital some three months later, the trial judge heard testimony concerning petitioner's competence from two state-employed psychologists. These experts expressed conflicting opinions regarding petitioner's ability to participate in his defense. The judge resolved the dispute against petitioner, ordering him to proceed to trial.

At the close of a pretrial hearing held one week before the trial was scheduled to begin, the lead defense attorney raised the issue of petitioner's competence for a third time. Counsel advised the court that petitioner was behaving oddly and refusing to communicate with him. Defense counsel opined that it would be a serious matter "if he's not faking." App.6. After listening to counsel's concerns, however, the judge declined to revisit his earlier determination that petitioner was competent to stand trial.

Petitioner's competence was addressed a fourth time on the first day of trial, when petitioner's bizarre behavior prompted the court to conduct a further competency hearing at which the judge observed petitioner and heard testimony from several lay witnesses, a third psychologist, and petitioner himself.[1] The expert concluded that petitioner was

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presently incompetent and unable to communicate effectively with counsel, but that he could probably achieve competence within six weeks if treated aggressively. While stating that he did not dispute the psychologist's diagnosis, the trial judge ruled against petitioner. In so holding, however, the court voiced uncertainty:

"Well, I think I've used the expression . . . in the past that normal is like us. Anybody that's not like us is not normal, so I don't think normal is a proper definition that we are to use with incompetence. My shirtsleeve opinion of Mr. Cooper is that he's not normal. Now, to say he's not competent is something else.

. . . . .

"But you know, all things considered, I suppose it's possible for a client to be in such a predicament that he can't help his defense and still not be incompetent. I suppose that's a possibility, too.

"I think it's going to take smarter people than me to make a decision here. I'm going to say that I don't believe he has carried the burden by clear and convincing evidence of his incompetency and I'm going to say we're going to go to trial." Id., at 42-43.

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Incidents that occurred during the trial,[2] as well as the sordid history of petitioner's childhood that was recounted during the sentencing phase of the proceeding, were consistent with the conclusions expressed by the expert. In a final effort to protect his client's interests, defense counsel moved for a mistrial or a renewed investigation into petitioner's competence. After the court summarily denied these motions, petitioner was convicted and sentenced to death.

In the Court of Criminal Appeals, petitioner contended that Oklahoma's presumption of competence, combined with its statutory requirement that a criminal defendant establish incompetence by clear and convincing evidence, Okla. Stat., Tit. 22, § 1175.4(B) (1991),[3] placed such an onerous burden on him as to violate his right to due process of law. The appellate court rejected this argument. After noting that it can be difficult to determine whether a defendant is malingering, given "the inexactness and uncertainty attached to [competency] proceedings," the court held that the standard was justified because the "State has great interest in assuring its citizens a thorough and speedy judicial process," and because a "truly incompetent criminal defendant, through his attorneys and experts, can prove incompetency with relative ease." 889 P.2d 293, 303 (1995). We granted certiorari to review the Court of Criminal Appeals' conclusion that application

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of the clear and convincing evidence standard does not violate due process. 516 U.S. 910...

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