Coe v State

Decision Date06 March 2000
Docket Number99-01313
Citation17 S.W.3d 193
CourtTennessee Supreme Court


SHELBY CRIMINAL, Div. III Trial Court No. B-73812

FOR APPELLANT: Robert L. Hutton, Glankler Brown, Memphis, Tennessee, James Walker, Nashville, Tennessee

FOR APPELLEE: Michael E. Moore, Solicitor General, Erik W. Daab, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, William L. Gibbons, District Attorney General, 30th Judicial District, John W. Campbell, Asst. Dist. Atty. General Memphis, Tennessee, Glen R. Pruden, Assistant Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee

Trial Only: William Mark Ward, Shelby County Public Defender's Office, Memphis, Tennessee

Trial Only: Larry Nance, Shelby County Public Defender's Office, Memphis, Tennessee

Hon. John P. Colton, Jr., Judge, Supreme Court

DROWOTA, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which ANDERSON, C.J., HOLDER, and BARKER, JJ. joined.

BIRCH, J., filed a separate dissenting opinion



The appellant, death row inmate Robert Glen Coe, challenges on both legal and factual grounds the trial court's order of February 2, 2000, finding that he is presently competent to be executed under Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 106 S. Ct. 2595, 91 L. Ed.2d 335 (1986) and Van Tran v. State, 6 S.W.3d 257 (Tenn. 1999).1 We have carefully reviewed de novo each of the legal claims raised by the appellant and conclude that none have merit. In addition, we have thoroughly reviewed the record in this appeal and conclude that the evidence fully supports and does not preponderate against the trial court's finding that the appellant is presently competent to be executed under the standard set forth in Van Tran. In Van Tran, we explained that "under Tennessee law a prisoner is not competent to be executed if the prisoner lacks the mental capacity to understand the fact of the impending execution and the reason for it." 6 S.W.3d at 266. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the trial court.

Procedural History

A brief summary of the procedural background of this case is necessary to place the issues in context. In 1981, the appellant was convicted in the Criminal Court of Shelby County of the aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping, and first-degree murder of an eight-year-old girl, Cary Ann Medlin.2 For the conviction of first-degree murder, the appellant received a death sentence, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment on each of the other convictions. On direct appeal, this Court affirmed the appellant's convictions and sentences. See State v. Coe, 655 S.W.2d 903 (Tenn. 1983). The United States Supreme Court denied the appellant's petition for writ of certiorari. See Coe v. Tennessee, 464 U.S. 1063, 104 S. Ct. 745, 79 L. Ed.2d 203 (1984). Thereafter, the appellant filed three separate petitions in state court seeking post-conviction relief; however, relief was denied by the state courts in each instance. In 1987, the appellant filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. Following an evidentiary hearing, in December of 1996, federal district court Judge John T. Nixon set aside the appellant's convictions and sentences upon finding that several federal constitutional errors had occurred during the appellant's original trial in 1981. In November of 1998, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court insofar as it had granted the appellant habeas corpus relief, and thereby effectively reinstated the appellant's convictions and sentences, see Coe v. Bell, 161 F.3d 320 (6th Cir. 1998); and the United States Supreme Court denied the appellant's petition for a writ of certiorari. See Coe v. Bell, __ U.S. __, 120 S. Ct. 110, 145 L. Ed.2d 93, reh'g denied __ U.S.__,120 S. Ct. 567, 145 L. Ed.2d 442 (1999).

After the United States Supreme Court declined to review the case, the State of Tennessee filed a motion in this Court requesting that an execution date be set for the appellant. In response, the appellant asserted his present incompetence to be executed. On December 15, 1999, this Court entered an order finding that the appellant had exhausted the standard three-tier appeals process3 and, in light of that finding, set the appellant's execution date as March 23, 2000. We also found that the appellant's claim of present incompetence was ripe for determination in light of the imminent execution date and remanded that issue to the Shelby County Criminal Court where the appellant was originally tried and sentenced. We directed that the issue be determined in accordance with the procedures and standard adopted by this Court in Van Tran, 6 S.W.3d. 257. See Coe v. State, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tenn.1999). As previously stated in Van Tran, we held that "under Tennessee law a prisoner is not competent to be executed if the prisoner lacks the mental capacity to understand the fact of the impending execution and the reason for it." 6 S.W.3d at 266.

The appellant filed a petition in the trial court challenging his competency to be executed and attached to the petition the affidavit of Dr. William Davis Kenner, III, a licensed Tennessee physician who practices psychiatry. In his affidavit, Dr. Kenner diagnosed the appellant as schizophrenic and opined that the appellant was not competent to be executed under Van Tran. The State filed a response to the petition, contending that Dr. Kenner's affidavit was insufficient to show that the appellant's competency was genuinely in issue and arguing that the appellant had failed to satisfy the threshold showing required by Van Tran. See 6 S.W.3d at 268. In an order entered January 3, 2000, the trial court, Judge John P. Colton, Jr., found that the appellant had satisfied the required threshold showing that his competency to be executed was genuinely in issue, appointed four mental health professionals, two for each side, to evaluate the appellant, and directed that the reports of the mental health professionals be filed by January 13, 2000. After the reports were filed, an evidentiary hearing to determine the appellant's competency was held, beginning on January 24 and concluding on January 28, 2000. The competency hearing is accurately described in great detail in the trial court's order of February 2, 2000, which is attached hereto as an appendix. However, the proceedings are summarized hereafter.

Competency Hearing

Testifying first for the appellant was Dr. James Ray Merikangas, M.D., one of the two mental health professionals appointed by the trial court at the request of the appellant pursuant to Van Tran. Dr. Merikangas is licensed as a physician in the state of Connecticut and board certified in both psychiatry and neurology. He lectures in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and practices neuropsychiatry in Connecticut. He was accepted by the trial court as an expert witness in the fields of neurology, neuropsychiatry, and psychiatry.

On direct examination, Dr. Merikangas opined that the appellant has congenital brain damage, maldevelopment, and probably some acquired brain damage. Dr. Merikangas derived these opinions from his review of the appellant's mental health records, a physical examination of the appellant, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test which revealed abnormalities in the structure of the appellant's brain, and a positron emission tomogram (PET) scan of the appellant's brain.

Dr. Merikangas diagnosed the appellant as a chronic paranoid schizophrenic. Dr. Merikangas based this diagnosis upon his oral interview with the appellant in which he discovered that the appellant has delusions, hallucinations, peculiarities of thinking, and disorders of movement that are symptomatic of schizophrenia. As specific examples of the appellant's conduct which supported his diagnosis of schizophrenia, Dr. Merikangas cited the appellant's decision to stay in his cell rather than exercise with other inmates, the appellant's past "wild" conduct, the appellant's nicotine addiction, the appellant's tendency to drink large amounts of coffee, and the appellant's pariphilia, i.e., tendency to masturbate in public. Dr. Merikangas rejected the possibility that the appellant was malingering mental illness, and described as "junk science" the testing upon which the State's mental health professionals had based their conclusions that the appellant was malingering.

When questioned as to whether the appellant was competent to be executed in accordance with the standard adopted in Van Tran, Dr. Merikangas admitted that even though the appellant claims he is innocent and that he is being executed to conceal the identity of the real killer, the appellant is "aware" that he is going to be executed and that he was sentenced to die for the murder of a young girl. However, Dr. Merikangas attempted to draw a distinction between "awareness" and "understanding" and opined that the appellant's beliefs that he will be reincarnated after his execution and return to earth, beliefs which apparently are similar to the those held by writer/philosopher Edgar Cayce, demonstrate that the appellant does not fully "understand" the consequences of death and that he is not competent to be executed. Dr. Merikangas further opined that the appellant will become even less competent than he is at present as the time of his execution draws near.

On cross-examination, Dr. Merikangas admitted that his personal contact with the appellant consisted of a single visit for a total of ninety minutes during which time he performed both a physical examination of the appellant and conducted an oral clinical interview. With regard to his statements on direct examination that the tests administered by the State's experts were not valid to determine malingering, Dr. Merikangas conceded that Dr. Richard Rogers, one of the...

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