United States v. Melhuish

Decision Date27 July 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-485,August Term, 2020,19-485
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Catherine MELHUISH, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Bruce R. Bryan, Syracuse, New York, for Defendant-Appellant

Paul D. Silver (Michael D. Gadarian, on the brief), Assistant United States Attorneys, for Antoinette T. Bacon, Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York, Albany, New York, for Appellee

Before: Walker, Wesley, and Nardini, Circuit Judges.

William J. Nardini, Circuit Judge:

This case involves a violent altercation between a United States Border Patrol Agent and a woman with a history of severe mental illness. Agent Rodney Caccavo encountered Defendant-Appellant Catherine Melhuish as she was walking barefoot and disheveled by the side of the road in the middle of the night. After Caccavo approached Melhuish to check her condition, Melhuish began speaking gibberish and spitting, and a physical struggle ensued. Melhuish was charged with one count of assaulting a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111(a)(1) and (b). During a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Thomas J. McAvoy, J .), defense counsel chose not to offer any expert testimony regarding Melhuish's mental health condition and instead advanced a defense that Melhuish was attempting to perform a justified citizen's arrest of Caccavo. The jury returned a guilty verdict.

Melhuish now appeals from a judgment of conviction entered on February 21, 2019. She argues that (1) the district court erred by providing a written response to a jury note without affording the parties an opportunity to offer input on the response; (2) the district court erred by orally instructing the jury to continue deliberations without sufficient cautions and guidance; and (3) she received ineffective assistance of counsel.

As to the district court's written jury note response and oral instruction, we conclude that the district court erred in both respects but that neither error rose to the level of plain error. As to Melhuish's ineffective assistance of counsel claim, we first conclude that the crime of assaulting a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111(a)(1) and (b) is a general intent crime, and we therefore conclude that counsel's performance was not deficient insofar as counsel failed to offer evidence to show that she lacked specific intent. Nevertheless, we conclude that further fact-finding is necessary and that the district court must conduct a hearing regarding certain decisions of Melhuish's counsel, including the decision not to offer expert testimony regarding Melhuish's mental health condition with respect to an insanity defense. We therefore REMAND for a hearing regarding Melhuish's ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

I. Background
A. Melhuish's history of mental illness and delusions related to police

Melhuish has a long history of struggles with her mental health. She has been diagnosed with, inter alia , schizophrenia

and schizoaffective disorder ; post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"); and brain bruising following a 2009 car accident in which she sustained a head injury.

Melhuish's mental health conditions have often led her to suffer from delusions. One of her frequent delusional beliefs is that police officers with ties to the occult and to pedophile rings are seeking to cause her physical harm. She has repeatedly received in-patient psychiatric treatment after reporting such delusions, and her symptoms have at times improved—but never fully resolved—with psychotropic medication.

B. The criminal complaint

On September 18, 2017, the Government filed a criminal complaint charging Melhuish with assaulting, resisting, and impeding a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111(a)(1) and (b). The complaint alleged that, on or about the same date, a United States Border Patrol Agent approached Melhuish while she was walking along the shoulder of a road during poor visibility conditions. After being asked for her identification, Melhuish reacted violently, spitting on the agent, biting him, and wrestling away his handcuffs before he and a county sheriff were finally able to subdue her.

A grand jury subsequently returned a superseding indictment containing the same charge.

C. Competency concerns

On October 3, 2017, at the request of defense counsel and with the consent of the Government, a magistrate judge committed Melhuish to the custody of the Attorney General for an examination to determine her mental competence to stand trial.

On December 27, 2017, government forensic psychologist Dr. Samantha DiMisa issued a report diagnosing Melhuish with a psychotic spectrum condition marked by persistent persecutory delusions. Dr. DiMisa's report detailed Melhuish's delusions that her arrest had resulted from efforts by law enforcement, including the Border Patrol Agent, to hunt her down and murder her in order to prevent her from speaking out about their involvement in a pedophilic occultic group. Melhuish had explained to a psychiatrist during the competency evaluation that, on the night of her arrest, she had been traveling to see her son to warn him of certain premonitions she had had about pedophilia and the occult. She speculated that the Border Patrol Agent might have been spiritually possessed, might have been working with an ex-boyfriend of hers who she believed (due to a premonition) had raped a child, and might kill her son if she were to testify in her own defense. Dr. DiMisa concluded that, although Melhuish could define and understand certain basic legal concepts, she lacked a rational understanding of the proceedings against her and was incapable of assisting her legal counsel with her defense or adequately making decisions about legal strategy.

Melhuish's defense counsel, acting on her behalf, challenged the finding of incompetency. At an appearance before a magistrate judge, Melhuish delivered a speech about her views on Jesus Christ and attributed Dr. DiMisa's conclusions regarding her mental health to "a difference of spiritual beliefs." App'x at 38-39. Both parties also filed written submissions. The Government took the position that it had no basis to object to Dr. DiMisa's opinion and requested that the magistrate judge hold a competency hearing.

On February 5, 2018, the magistrate judge conducted such a hearing. Dr. DiMisa testified, explaining that while Melhuish had an adequate "factual understanding"—enabling her to identify, for example, the roles of individuals in a courtroom—her delusions precluded an adequate "rational understanding" of the events of her arrest, including the "ability to rationally, logically, coherently, and purposely understand the nature of her charges and to be able to defend and represent herself adequately." Id . at 599-600. Dr. DiMisa noted that Melhuish had refused to take psychotropic medication during her evaluation and suggested that her condition could potentially be "mitigated or treated with medication." Id . at 603.

On February 9, 2018, notwithstanding Dr. DiMisa's conclusions and in the absence of any conflicting expert testimony, the magistrate judge issued an order holding that Melhuish was competent to stand trial. In reaching this conclusion, the magistrate judge explained that he was relying in substantial part on Melhuish's and her counsel's representations regarding competency:

While Dr. DiMisa has opined that defendant is not competent to stand trial because she lacks a rational understanding of the charges against her, based upon the assertion by defendant and defendant's attorney that she is in fact competent to stand trial, and is fully capable of effectively aiding counsel in the defense of her case , and the court's observation of defendant at the recent hearing and other court proceedings, taken together, I find that proceeding to trial at this stage will not violate defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial.

Id . at 66 (emphasis added). The magistrate judge thereafter conducted a detention hearing and ordered Melhuish's release pending trial.

This state of affairs did not last long: Less than two weeks after her release, Melhuish was admitted to the psychiatric emergency department of a hospital. Within a week of her hospital discharge, she was again arrested after refusing to leave a convenience store while mumbling incoherently and accusing police officers of sexual assault. The United States Probation Office also filed two declarations reporting that Melhuish had violated the conditions of her pretrial release and expressing concerns about "the depth of [Melhuish's] mental illness" and the absence of "a plan for her mental health treatment." Id . at 71-72. The Government thereafter moved for reconsideration of Melhuish's competency. The magistrate judge denied this motion but revoked Melhuish's release.

On April 30, 2018, Melhuish's counsel filed a letter reporting that Melhuish's mental state had decompensated further in prison, that she had stopped eating and was experiencing hallucinations, and that she had once again been sent to an emergency room for mental health treatment. Defense counsel then expressed that she did not believe Melhuish currently was able to participate in her legal defense and requested further inquiry into Melhuish's competency. On May 3, 2018, the magistrate judge ordered that Melhuish be placed in the custody of the Attorney General pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4241, and then be returned to the court for another competency determination.

Approximately seven months later, on December 10, 2018, the court received a Certificate of Recovery from the Bureau of Prisons ("BOP"), which stated that Melhuish's mental state had improved such that she was competent to proceed to trial. The BOP based this conclusion on the evaluation of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Amor Correa, who opined that Melhuish, despite continuing to suffer...

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