Bruce v. Estelle

Decision Date06 September 1973
Docket NumberNo. 72-2641.,72-2641.
Citation483 F.2d 1031
PartiesRobert V. BRUCE, Petitioner-Appellant, v. W. J. ESTELLE, Director, Texas Department of Corrections, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit


Michael Anthony Maness, court-appointed, Houston, Tex., for petitioner-appellant.

John L. Hill, Atty. Gen., Lonny Zwiener, Asst. Atty. Gen., Austin, Tex., for respondent-appellee.

Before WISDOM, GEWIN and COLEMAN, Circuit Judges.

GEWIN, Circuit Judge.

In this case, we are once again confronted with the difficult task of reviewing the question whether a state prisoner is entitled to a writ of habeas corpus because of his alleged incompetence to assert an intelligent and meaningful defense during his trial. The record discloses an unusual and bizarre factual background. We do not lightly undertake our responsibility because it was a fundamental precept at common law,1 and more recently a constitutional mandate that one who is incompetent cannot be criminally prosecuted.2

Robert Bruce, a state prisoner appeals from the denial of his petition for the writ of habeas corpus by the district court. On November 2, 1965, Bruce was convicted of the murder of his wife and the jury imposed a sentence of life imprisonment. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal.3 His subsequent application for a writ of habeas corpus to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was denied without a hearing. Thereafter on December 6, 1966, he filed a petition for the writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas which denied the writ. On appeal, we vacated and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss the writ without prejudice to Bruce so he could reapply for relief in the state court in which he was convicted.4

Accordingly, Bruce sought relief from the state convicting court. The state court empaneled a jury and after a full hearing in which extensive testimony was presented, the jury returned a verdict that Bruce had been competent to stand trial in 1965 for the murder of his wife. Adopting the findings of the jury, the state court denied relief on September 26, 1969. On appeal the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion and Bruce instituted the instant petition in the United States District Court. The United States District Court concluded that the competency issue was fairly resolved by the state court and dismissed the petition. After a careful review of the state court record, we remand to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


In order to place this case in proper perspective it is necessary to set forth a detailed statement of the undisputed facts. As earlier indicated, the facts are bizarre, novel and most unusual. During the Christmas season, specifically on December 22, 1964, Bruce killed his wife, the mother of his three children, by shooting her with a pistol. After his arrest and while in the Dallas County Jail Bruce attempted to take his own life. It is now admitted that the record supports the conclusion that he was sane at the time of the homicide.

Shortly thereafter, on January 12, 1965, a grand jury was convened to investigate the case. Private counsel was retained and Bruce was examined by two psychiatrists, Dr. Pickard and Dr. Holbrook. On February 26 they pronounced him insane and classified his mental disease as "Paranoid Personality Disorder, Severe, Chronic."5 On March 1, 1965 the grand jury no-billed the case and Bruce was held for a lunacy commitment. Two days later, the Probate Court of Dallas County concluded that Bruce was insane and "ordered, adjudged and decreed that (Bruce) is hereby adjudged mentally ill and requires observation and/or treatment in a mental hospital for his own welfare and protection or the protection of others," and ordered him involuntarily committed to Terrell State Hospital, an institution for the treatment of the mentally ill. There is nothing in the record to indicate that this determination has ever been set aside.

Soon after his admission, Bruce, aided by counsel, obtained a release from the hospital by "Doctor" Reid Brown, alias Freddie Brant, who was subsequently determined to be an imposter and was convicted of perjury and practicing medicine without a recorded license. He was given a sentence of five years under the perjury charge. On May 6, 1965 Bruce voluntarily committed himself to Terrell State Hospital but later escaped. The authorities were advised that he was no longer confined to the hospital and on May 24 a grand jury indicted him for the murder of his wife.

Counsel who had served Bruce to this point, Mr. McNicholas, was dismissed apparently because he insisted that Bruce should enter a plea of insanity in defense of the charge against him. Another attorney, Mr. Snodgrass, was employed with the apparent understanding that both the father and Bruce would not permit an insanity plea because it was felt that such a plea "would reflect on his children."6 He was convicted of murder with malice on September 21, 1965 and on October 28 of that year sentenced to life imprisonment.

At the state court post-conviction hearing to determine whether Bruce was competent to stand trial several witnesses appeared. Attorney Snodgrass who represented Bruce at his murder trial strongly indicated that he was instructed not to use the defense of insanity. Although Mr. Snodgrass "believed" that Bruce was able to communicate with him and assist in his defense, he did state that on two different occasions during the trial Bruce became emotional and erratic and for a short period each time Mr. Snodgrass felt that he was not competent to assist him. There was some testimony that on these occasions the trial judge threatened to bind and gag Bruce if he persisted in emotional outbursts. The state supported its contention of competency with the testimony of only one other witness, Dr. Grigson. Dr. Grigson testified that he interviewed Bruce for one hour in the Dallas County Jail on February 4, 1969 and concluded from that interview and an examination of records that Bruce was competent to stand trial in September, 1965.7

Dr. Hugh Brown (not to be confused with Reid Brown), a physician and former superintendent at Terrell State Hospital, interviewed Bruce on two different occasions in April and September 1969. He also had access to the hospital records which he studied and analyzed. It was his professional opinion that Bruce was not competent at the time of his murder trial.8 Dr. Tauber, another physician employed at Terrell State Hospital, examined Bruce physically and neurologically over a period of six weeks beginning in February 1969. He saw Bruce daily during that period. Dr. Talbot, a consulting psychologist at Terrell State Hospital, administered five psychological tests to Bruce. Dr. Tauber conferred with Dr. Talbot and also examined the records and the treatment administered to Bruce while he was a patient at the hospital. It was Dr. Tauber's conclusion that Bruce was not mentally competent to stand trial in September 1965 when the trial was conducted.9 Attorney McNicholas expressed the opinion that Bruce was unable to effectively communicate with him and was incompetent to assist in a criminal proceeding during the time he served as Bruce's attorney. Bruce's father described a long history of aberrational behavior commencing in early childhood and continuing throughout his adult life.

The medical records of the Marine Corps reflect that Bruce experienced rather severe emotional trouble while he served as an enlisted man. At one time while he was drinking he seized a rifle and commandeered the barracks where a number of marines were quartered. He was finally subdued by six other marines and the record indicates that it required six fellow marines to transport him to the hospital.10

After presentation of all the evidence, the jury returned a verdict concluding that Bruce was competent to stand trial in 1965. The state court adopted the findings of the jury and denied relief. The district court reviewed the record of the state court proceedings and concluded that Bruce had been given a full and fair hearing on the issue of insanity, and the evidence adduced at the state proceeding supported the conclusion that Bruce had been sane and fully capable of standing trial in 1965. We now review the correctness of these conclusions.


Our analysis commences with the elementary observation that the conviction of an accused while he is legally incompetent violates due process.11 The contours of this fundamental right were delineated by the Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States,12 where the Court held that the test for determining mental competency to stand trial is:

whether he the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding — and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.13

As is often the case, however, the legal principle is explicated with an ease not present when procedures are attempted to effectuate the right thus recognized. This problem is further accentuated when one attempts to present a competency challenge long after the trial as in the instant case.

This court has attempted to provide a meaningful procedure for determining competency to stand trial in a subsequent post-conviction hearing. We have recognized that such defenses should normally be presented at the trial itself.14 Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has held that,

It is contradictory to argue that a defendant may be incompetent, and yet knowingly or intelligently "waive" his right to have the court determine his capacity to stand trial.15

Thus any attempt to argue that an incompetent defendant has waived his right to assert incompetency to stand trial in a post-conviction proceeding will generally fail. If a defendant can present...

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