State v. Garfoot

Decision Date04 February 1997
Docket NumberNo. 94-1817-CR,94-1817-CR
Citation207 Wis.2d 214,558 N.W.2d 626
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Dean GARFOOT, Defendant-Respondent-Petitioner.

For the defendant-respondent-petitioner there were briefs by T. Christopher Kelly and Reynolds, Thomas, Kelly & Habermehl, S.C., Madison and oral argument by T. Christopher Kelly.

For the plaintiff-appellant the cause was argued by Diane M. Nicks, Assistant Attorney General with whom on the brief was James E. Doyle, Attorney General.

¶1 DONALD W. STEINMETZ, Justice

The issues in this case are: (1) what standard should properly govern review of a trial court's determination of a defendant's competency to stand trial; and (2) whether a defendant shall be subjected to a criminal trial when the state does not present sufficient evidence to convince the trial court that the defendant is capable of understanding the fundamental nature of the trial process and of assisting his or her counsel. Because we find that the trial court is in the best position to weigh all the evidence necessary to make a competency determination, we hold that a court reviewing such a determination should apply a "clearly erroneous" standard of review. We further hold that because the state bears the burden of proving a defendant's competency when it is put at issue by the defendant, a defendant shall not be subjected to a criminal trial when the state fails to prove by the greater weight of the credible evidence that the defendant is capable of understanding the fundamental nature of the trial process and of meaningfully assisting his or her counsel.

¶2 On May 13, 1993, Dean Garfoot (Garfoot) was charged with attempted first-degree sexual assault in violation of Wis. Stat. §§ 940.225(1)(b) and 939.32(1). At the request of Garfoot's attorney, the circuit court ordered a competency examination of Garfoot after his initial appearance pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 971.14(1) and (2). The court appointed Dr. Patricia Jens to conduct the competency examination of Garfoot in accordance with Wis. Stat. § 971.14.

¶3 Dr. Jens is a board certified psychiatrist who is frequently appointed by courts to conduct competency evaluations. After meeting with Garfoot, Dr. Jens issued a report containing her observations. She noted that when Garfoot is questioned, he smiles and agrees with everybody and will act as if he understands things even if he does not. She also noted that Garfoot was able to "parrot back" information that she fed to him at the beginning of the interview, but was unable to retain it at the end of the interview about an hour and a half later.

¶4 As far as his ability to understand and to participate in the proceedings against him, Dr. Jens explained that Garfoot was unable to understand the range of possible penalties for his offense, was unable to understand the different kinds of pleas even though he could repeat them by name, and was unable to understand concepts such as the burden of proof or the difference between a bench trial and a jury trial.

¶5 Dr. Jens opined that Garfoot would not ever be able to participate meaningfully in a criminal trial because of his developmental disability. She concluded that Garfoot can recall facts, but cannot relate them to a legal proceeding so as to aid his attorney. She also stated that Garfoot would be unable to make informed decisions, could not grasp the implications of a decision whether or not to testify, and would not be able to communicate with his attorney about testimony that may be inaccurate. Dr. Jens' ultimate conclusion was that Garfoot was not competent to stand trial.

¶6 The State requested, and was granted, the appointment of a second examiner of its own choosing. The State chose Dr. Michael Spierer, a psychologist, to conduct the second competency examination of Garfoot. He determined that Garfoot has an IQ of 64 which places him in the lowest 2.2 percent of the population. Dr. Spierer concluded that Garfoot functions on about a third-grade level. However, he did not know whether Garfoot was capable of learning at a third-grade level.

¶7 Dr. Spierer used a standardized test known as the competency screening test to help evaluate an individual's competence to stand trial. The highest possible total is 44; the lowest is zero. A score of less than 20 raises questions about an individual's competence. Garfoot's score was 18. In response to Dr. Spierer's questions, Garfoot gave inadequate and inappropriate answers.

¶8 Dr. Spierer conceded that Garfoot would have problems comprehending complicated questions and that he may not follow certain lines of testimony. He opined, however that Garfoot's low IQ would not preclude him from understanding the proceedings or from significantly assisting in his defense. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that Garfoot would have a very hard time keeping up with questions on cross-examination and could become frustrated and upset in attempting to do so. Dr. Spierer described Garfoot's ability to understand the legal defenses available to him as "marginal" or "minimal."

¶9 Dr. Spierer ultimately testified, in response to the court's questioning, that if he were to characterize the level of Garfoot's competency, "it would be at the margin." Therefore, Dr. Spierer concluded that Garfoot was only "marginally competent" to proceed to trial.

¶10 On February 4 and 10, 1994, the court held a competency hearing at which the two experts testified. On March 18, 1994, the Dane County Circuit Court, Judge Stuart A. Schwartz, issued a written decision in which it determined that the State failed to meet its burden of proving by the greater weight of the evidence that Garfoot was competent to stand trial. The trial court relied on the Wisconsin test for competency--a two-part test enunciated by the United States Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 80 S.Ct. 788, 4 L.Ed.2d 824 (1960) (per curiam). Under Dusky, the test to determine a defendant's competency to stand trial is "whether he 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." Id.

¶11 The court later held a hearing in May of 1994 to determine whether Garfoot would likely gain competence within the time frame established by Wis. Stat. § 971.14(5)(a). In remarks to counsel at this hearing, the court explained that although the State may have met its burden in proving that Garfoot understands the proceedings, it failed to meet its burden in the initial competency hearing of demonstrating that Garfoot can assist counsel in any meaningful way. For this same reason, the State's failure to meet its burden of proof, the court determined that Garfoot would not likely regain his competence within the statutory time frame. The court entered an order of dismissal.

¶12 The State appealed the dismissal to the court of appeals, arguing that the circuit court applied a heightened standard of competence in this case. The State claimed that the circuit court had "rubber-stamped" Dr. Jens' medical determination rather than making a proper legal determination as to Garfoot's competence. Applying a de novo standard of review, the court of appeals reversed and remanded for further proceedings. The court concluded that the trial court did not apply the appropriate standard to the testimony by the expert witnesses, did not consider Garfoot's abilities with reference to the trial likely to take place, and did not consider fully its power to modify the proceedings. Garfoot appealed to this court, and we now reverse the court of appeals.

¶13 In Wisconsin, "[n]o person who lacks substantial mental capacity to understand the proceedings or assist in his or her own defense may be tried, convicted or sentenced for the commission of an offense so long as the incapacity endures." Wis. Stat. § 971.13(1). There are several theoretical reasons supporting the legal principle that an incompetent or unfit defendant may not be required to stand trial:

(1) were he tried it would violate the long-standing common-law view that persons should not be tried in absentia; (2) he cannot defend himself, and as a consequence he cannot exercise his constitutional right to be informed of the accusation, he cannot confront his accusers; and (3) the court lacks jurisdiction over him.

Donald Paull, Fitness to Stand Trial 8 (Charles C. Thomas 1993). Because a person's constitutional and procedural rights are at issue, then, fundamental fairness precludes the prosecution of a mentally incompetent individual. State ex rel. Matalik v. Schubert, 57 Wis.2d 315, 322, 204 N.W.2d 13 (1973).

¶14 Whenever there is a reason to doubt the competency of a defendant to proceed, the trial court must order an examination of the defendant under Wis. Stat. § 971.14(1)(a) and (2). The examiner must submit a report "regarding the defendant's present mental capacity to understand the proceedings and assist in his or her defense." Wis. Stat. § 971.14(3)(c). If the question of the defendant's competency is contested, the court shall hold an evidentiary hearing. Wis. Stat. § 971.14(4)(b). If the defendant claims to be incompetent, the state bears the burden of proving by the greater weight of the credible evidence that the defendant is competent. Id. If the defendant claims to be competent, the state must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is incompetent. Id.

¶15 The basic test for determining competency was established by the United States Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 80 S.Ct. 788, 4 L.Ed.2d 824 (1960) (per curiam). A person is competent to proceed if: 1) he or she possesses sufficient present ability to consult with his or her lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and 2) he or she possesses a rational as well as...

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