Raithel v. State

Citation280 Md. 291,372 A.2d 1069
Decision Date05 May 1977
Docket NumberNo. 117,117
PartiesThomas Leonard RAITHEL v. STATE of Maryland.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland

Victoria A. Salner, Asst. Public Defender (Alan H. Murrell, Public Defender, Baltimore, on the brief), for appellant.

Gilbert Rosenthal, Asst. Atty. Gen., Baltimore (Francis B. Burch, Atty. Gen., and Clarence W. Sharp, Asst. Atty. Gen., Baltimore, on the brief), for appellee.


LEVINE, Judge.

This is yet another case in which the central issue is whether the accused was properly found competent to stand trial. After the Circuit Court for Prince George's County determined that appellant was competent to stand trial, a jury found him guilty of first degree murder, assault with intent to rape, and carrying a dangerous weapon openly. On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, his conviction was affirmed in an unreported opinion, Thomas Leonard Raithel v. State of Mayland, (No. 1007, September Term 1975, decided September 23, 1976). We reverse.

On July 5, 1974, appellant, then 17 years of age, was employed as a busboy by a College Park restaurant at which a young female customer received a fatal stab wound in the chest as she was on her way to the ladies' room. The police investigation immediately focused on appellant. In the course of that investigation, he made several confessions of guilt which were introduced in evidence at trial. His defense consisted mainly of insanity at the time the offense was committed. Additionally, he alleged that he was not competent to stand trial. In accordance with Maryland Code (1957, 1972 Repl.Vol.) Art. 59, § 23, the trial judge held a hearing out of the presence of the jury to determine the competency issue. See Jones v. State of Maryland, Md., 372 A.2d 1064 (1977) (decided May 5, 1977).

At the hearing, appellant produced a practicing psychiatrist licensed in the State of Maryland, Doctor Richard H. Kastner, who, following voir dire examination, was accepted by the court as an expert witness in both psychiatry and psychology. The witness testified that he had formed an opinion regarding appellant's competency to stand trial on the strength of four examinations, each lasting from one to two hours, made prior to the trial date. He stated:

'It is my opinion this man is suffering from a mental disorder and that this mental disorder precludes him from thinking in a rational way and understanding the nature and quality of the charges and therefore cannot effectively, intellectually and emotionally partake in his own defense.' (Emphasis added).

After recounting in detail appellant's extensive history of emotional illness, the witness expressed the opinion that appellant was suffering from schizophrenia, and was incompetent to stand trial. His conclusion had been arrived at in this manner:

'The finding is based upon a team response, a very careful examination with a final report that was submitted, indicating the historical background of the person, the emotional makeup, the problems that he has had, the manner in which he has handled them, the careful analysis of the crime itself, the motivation that was involved, and the psychological disorder which was present at the time of the commission of the act and is still present, which precludes him from thinking rationally.' (Emphasis added).

On learning that the witness had last examined appellant some five months prior to trial, the court recessed the hearing to permit an additional examination. Subsequently, the witness, after analyzing at length for the court the discussion in which he had just engaged with appellant, again rendered the opinion that 'this man is not competent at the present time to understand the full nature and the full quality of the charges brought against him.' During cross-examination by the prosecuting attorney, this colloquy occurred:

'Q. What is the Maryland test under the Maryland law for competency to stand trial?

'A. That he knows the nature and quality of the act that he performed and whether he knows the consequences of those acts basically.

'(Prosecuting Attorney): Your Honor, I would move to disqualify the doctor's testimony because he does not even know the test.

'(Defense Counsel): Well, I would say, if I may, I would inquire of the doctor again if the standard by which the State of Maryland in Article 59 as to the test to determine the mental capacity of the defendant-

'(Prosecuting Attorney): Objection.

'The Court: Sustained. We are not going to educate the doctor . . ..

'Very well, grant the motion. The doctor is disqualified. He has in response to the last question asked on cross-examination, indicated to the Court that he does not know the standard by which this Court is to judge this matter, and accordingly Doctor, thank you. Your testimony is no longer needed.' (Emphasis added).

Defense counsel then proffered again to show that the witness knew the test for competency, but had misunderstood the question. The court stood on its prior ruling, denied a defense request for a continuance to have appellant examined by another psychiatrist, and then heard from a psychiatrist produced by the State.

The State's witness, Doctor Wilfried R. Freinek, was employed by the Department of Mental Hygiene as Director of Forensic Psychiatry, and had participated in a staff conference at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital at which appellant had been found competent to stand trial. Over objection, the witness, apparently while reading from Article 59, § 23, was allowed to render the opinion '(that the patient is able) to understand the nature of the object of the proceedings against him and is able to assist in his defense.' The witness reached this conclusion as a result of an examination on the morning of trial lasting some 15 or 20 minutes, '(m)aybe five minutes.' 1 In the course of relating appellant's responses to the several questions which he had been asked, the witness testified that '(appellant) was nervous when we discussed the case and he is worried about the outcome of the proceedings.'

At the conclusion of the testimony, the trial court announced its ruling:

'The Court is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that indeed this defendant is aware of the nature of these proceedings. This only then leaves the matter of whether or not the defendant is capable of assisting in his own defense. The Court observes that the defense in this case is insanity in the main. I don't think that there is anybody that proffers that this defendant could offer any other assistance because of the nature of the offense and subsequent events. . . . (W)hat assistance can he offer in the defense of his defense of insanity? He is not a doctor and cannot testify in that area so that that is not a critical, fatal factor in my determination.'

In arriving at its determination, the court attached particular significance to Doctor Freinek's testimony 'that the defendant was nervous and that he was worried about the outcome of this case indicating to the Court an awareness of these proceedings and the consequences.' In respect to appellant's witness, the court said:

'. . . Dr. Kastner's testimony ultimately has to be eliminated from the Court's decision by it granting the State's Motion to Strike it on the grounds of Dr. Kastner's predicate for his opinion fell. Let me comment even beyond that. In looking at Dr. Kastner's testimony I am not satisfied that even if I am allowed to consider it that indeed it warrants the Court concluding that Dr. Kastner's opinion of incompetency is valid.' (Emphasis added).

In respect to the ruling which excluded Doctor Kastner's testimony, the Court of Special Appeals, though describing it as having been 'precipitously' made, treated this contention as merely raising a question of the witness's qualifications. As such, said the court, the issue was addressed to the discretion of the trial judge, and therefore required a showing of abuse to compel reversal. The Court of Special Appeals was equally unimpressed with the contention that the trial court had misapplied the statutory test for determining competency of the accused by failing to find that appellant was capable of 'assist(ing) in his defense.' The Court of Special Appeals read the trial judge's ruling to mean merely that where insanity is the primary defense, the defendant's understanding of the nature and object of the proceedings is more 'crucial' than is his ability to 'assist in his defense.' In any event, concluded the court, there was no error since Doctor Freinek's testimony amply supported the determination of competency. We granted certiorari to consider both questions raised by appellant, and turn first to the contention that the trial court erred in not deciding whether appellant was capable of assisting in his own defense.


As we have indicated, the test for determining whether the accused in this state is competent to stand trial is set forth in Art. 59, § 23, which, in relevant part, states that the determination is governed by 'whether such person is unable to understand the nature of the object of the proceeding against him or to assist in his defense.' (Emphasis added). Further, the issue of competency is to be determined by the court, which must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is competent to stand trial. Golbert v. State, 18 Md.App. 632, 641, 308 A.2d 726, cert. denied, 269 Md. 756 (1973); Rozzell v. State, 5 Md.App. 167, 175, 245 A.2d 917 (1968), cert. denied, 252 Md. 732 (1969); Strawderman v. State, 4 Md.App. 689, 697, 244 A.2d 888 (1968), cert. denied, 252 Md. 733 (1969).

Prior to the enactment of chapter 709, Laws of Maryland, 1967, now codified with minor amendments as Art. 59, § 23, the applicable statute, Code (1957, 1964 Repl. Vol.) Art. 59, § 7, had provided that the jury was charged not only with the responsibility of determining sanity at the time of commission of the offense,...

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