Rohan ex rel. Gates v. Woodford

Decision Date25 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-99016.,01-99016.
PartiesColleen Mary ROHAN, ex rel. Oscar GATES, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Jeanne WOODFORD, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

William L. Osterhoudt, San Francisco, California, argued for the appellant. Tim Brosnan joined him on the briefs.

John H. Deist, Deputy Attorney General, San Francisco, California, argued for the appellee. Bill Lockyer, Robert R. Anderson, Ronald A. Bass and Dane R. Gillette joined him on the brief.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California; William H. Alsup, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-88-02779-WHA.

Before KOZINSKI and KLEINFELD, Circuit Judges, and KARLTON,* District Judge.


KOZINSKI, Circuit Judge:

We decide whether a district court must stay capital habeas proceedings during a petitioner's incompetence.


Oscar Gates was sentenced to death for murdering Lonnie Stevenson in 1979. Gates belonged to a forgery ring run by the Stevenson family, and became embroiled in a dispute over his cut of the proceeds during which a Stevenson family member shot him in the leg. Gates then went to the Stevensons' house with a gun and met two family members, Lonnie and Maurice, in the yard. Gates killed Lonnie and wounded Maurice. Maurice claims Gates ordered them to hand over their jewelry and then shot them both. Gates claims he fired only after another family member showed up wielding a gun.

The State charged Gates with murder, robbery and other offenses. The jury convicted on all counts and found the special circumstance of murder in connection with a robbery, making Gates eligible for the death penalty. During the penalty phase, the State introduced evidence of Gates's prior convictions for robbery, rape and kidnaping. It also presented evidence of a prior assault and robbery of two women that had resulted in one's death, a crime for which Gates was later convicted. The defense responded with evidence of Gates's upbringing, alleging that he had been a victim of police harassment and racism. Gates's neighbors testified he was a "good-natured person," and a clinical psychologist characterized him as well-adjusted. After considering this evidence, the jury sentenced Gates to death. The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence on direct review in 1987. People v. Gates, 43 Cal.3d 1168, 240 Cal. Rptr. 666, 743 P.2d 301 (1987).

Since his conviction, Gates has been acting uncooperatively and irrationally. He has filed an extraordinary number of pro se habeas petitions in various courts — more than 120 by 1993 alone, some hundreds of pages long. The petitions are rambling and make outlandish claims. They revolve primarily around Gates's theory that he is a beneficiary of the Howard Hughes trust fund, and that state officials and his appointed defense counsel are conspiring to "assassinate" him in order to deny him his inheritance. The petitions often lapse into even more fanciful claims — that prison medical staff are trying to poison him with radioactive cobalt, or that Howard Hughes told him how to cure AIDS with yellow chili peppers. Gates's counsel believe he is delusional and suffers from a psychological condition known as "hypergraphia." The State, however, suspects Gates is fully capable of acting rationally and is malingering to avoid the death penalty.

Gates's counsel sought habeas relief in state and federal court. They believe his conviction and death sentence violated the Constitution in several respects, including: (1) Gates was incompetent to stand trial, and his trial counsel were ineffective for failing to seek a competency hearing; (2) Gates's speedy trial rights were violated, and evidence was lost as a result; (3) the State failed to disclose bargains it reached with prosecution witnesses; (4) the jury instructions misstated the murder/robbery aggravating circumstance; (5) Gates's lawyers were ineffective for presenting inadequate mitigating evidence of his upbringing; (6) the penalty-phase jury instructions misstated the procedure for considering mitigating circumstances; and (7) California's death penalty is unconstitutional because it does not sufficiently narrow the class of death-eligible defendants. Counsel also argue that Gates is currently incompetent and that further habeas proceedings must be stayed until he can communicate rationally. They say their ability to pursue many of Gates's claims is impaired by their inability to converse with him, and that proceeding while Gates is incompetent would undermine his constitutional due process rights and his statutory right to capital habeas counsel under 21 U.S.C. § 848(q)(4)(B).

Gates exhausted his claims before the state courts, including a claim that he was incompetent to pursue state collateral review. No state competency hearing was held. His competence was then litigated in federal court for the next several years. He was transferred to the California Department of Mental Health, where he was examined over two months by a state psychiatrist and a psychiatrist retained by Gates's counsel. Both concluded that Gates is not malingering, and truly does have a mental impairment. The state psychiatrist reported that Gates "suffer[s] from a mental disease or defect" that "markedly interferes with a rational understanding" of the proceedings, and that he is "quite unable to make rational decisions." In response to the question whether Gates's condition "[r]ender[s] him unable, as opposed to unwilling, to assist his counselor in the preparation of his petition for writ of habeas corpus," the psychiatrist wrote, "His unwillingness stems from his paranoid lack of trust and certainty he is being persecuted. His attorneys have attested to his inability to cooperate."

Gates's own expert reached similar conclusions. In response to the question whether Gates had "the capacity to appreciate his position and make rational choices with regard to the current proceedings in this Court," he answered "definitely in the negative." "He is unable to cooperate with his attorneys and he is unable to be rational about the Court.... He is unable to make rational decisions with respect to the proceedings in the Court.... I do not think he can cooperate with any attorney."

The district court held a competency hearing in which it reviewed the two experts' findings and interviewed Gates in camera. It concluded:

Gates' mental condition would seriously impede his attorneys from protecting his rights.... Mr. Gates [is] presently incompetent, in that he presently suffers from a mental disorder that may substantially affect his capacity to cooperate with counsel and proceed with his petition in this court. This disorder denies Mr. Gates the capacity to appreciate his position and to make rational choices with respect to these habeas proceedings.1

After making these determinations, however, the court did not stay further proceedings as requested. Instead, it appointed Colleen Rohan, an attorney, to pursue Gates's petition as "next friend" on his behalf.

Rohan soon reported that she, too, was unable to pursue Gates's habeas claims effectively because she could not communicate rationally with him. She renewed the request to stay further proceedings. The State took the position that adjudication of Gates's petition should proceed despite his incompetence. The district court told Rohan to file a brief under seal identifying the claims requiring Gates's assistance and describing the information sought. Rohan submitted the sealed brief. The district court reviewed it and then denied the request to stay proceedings.

The district court held that neither due process nor the federal habeas statutes required a stay, because Rohan's appointment as next friend adequately protected Gates's interests. It acknowledged that due process requires a criminal defendant to be competent to stand trial. In its view, however, that requirement did not apply to habeas proceedings, which are a mere "secondary and limited" component of the criminal justice process, Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 887, 103 S.Ct. 3383, 77 L.Ed.2d 1090 (1983). The court observed that federal statutory law and Supreme Court precedent both assume that next friends can pursue habeas claims on an incompetent prisoner's behalf. See 28 U.S.C. § 2242 ("Application for a writ of habeas corpus shall be in writing signed and verified by the person for whose relief it is intended or by someone acting in his behalf." (emphasis added)); Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149, 162, 110 S.Ct. 1717, 109 L.Ed.2d 135 (1990) (noting that next friend standing "has long been an accepted basis for jurisdiction").

The court acknowledged that, in some cases, a competent petitioner could "provide information that might strengthen some of the claims in the petition or give rise to other claims." But it held that this was not such a case: "Without revealing the content of [the sealed brief], it can be described as being fairly general. Accordingly, at the present time, and on the present record, the Court finds that a stay of these proceedings is not warranted."

Acknowledging that the issue was close and that judicial economy favored immediate resolution, the court certified its ruling for interlocutory review under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), and we accepted jurisdiction. We must assume for purposes of this appeal that Gates's incompetence is bona fide; we address only its consequences.2


1. Our constitutional and statutory interpretations are shaped by common law tradition. We therefore begin, as other courts have before us, by reviewing the pedigree of the right that Rohan invokes on Gates's behalf.

The right to competence was firmly established at common law. Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, noted in his Pleas of the Crown that the common law prohibited trial and execution of incompetents:


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