White v. Estelle

Citation459 U.S. 1118,103 S.Ct. 757,74 L.Ed.2d 973
Decision Date10 January 1983
Docket NumberNo. 81-6937,81-6937
PartiesRobert Lee WHITE, petitioner, v. W.J. ESTELLE, Jr., Texas Department of Corrections
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

On petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice MARSHALL, dissenting from denial of certiorari.

The Court of Appeals held that the appropriate standard to be applied to petitioner's due process claim was whether, "[v]iewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the [finding of competence], . . . any rational trier of fact could conclude that the evidence does not predominate in favor of the appellant's claim of incompetence." While noting that "[t]his is, admittedly, a close case," the appellate court concluded that the evidence was sufficient for a rational trier of fact to find White competent to stand trial. For the reasons set forth below, I would grant the petition for certiorari in order to determine whether petitioner's constitutional claim should be reconsidered under a less deferential standard that until now has been applicable to such claims on federal habeas review.


On January 12, 1975, petitioner Robert Lee White was indicted in Lubbock County, Tex., on the charge of capital murder. Shortly thereafter, petitioner's competency to stand trial was called into question by his attorneys. On June 28, 1975, the trial court granted defense counsel's motion for a private psychiatric examination and evaluation of the defendant, directing that White be released from jail for testing at the Southwest Center for Psychological and Vocational Testing. On three occasions, the court granted defense counsel's motions for further neurological and psychiatric examinations. On September 3, 1976, the court ordered an examination by a disinterested, qualified expert to determine White's competence to stand trial.1 The appointed psychiatrist reported that White had been psychotic "for at least seven to eight years."

In January 1977, the court, finding that there was some evidence that White was not competent, impanelled a jury to determine White's competency to stand trial. At the competency hearing, defense counsel called the court-appointed psychiatrist and two psychologists who had also previously examined White. Based upon their diagnostic tests and observations, the experts testified that White was "chronically psychotic," that is, he suffered from schizophrenia of long standing, characterized by hallucinations and an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. They also testified that petitioner's IQ of 69-75 indicated "borderline mental retardation." The defendant's experts concluded that while he understood the charges against him, White's mental disorders rendered him incompetent to consult with his attorneys. One of the defendant's attorneys gave testimony confirming that White was not able to assist in his defense.

The prosecution called two experts, a neurologist and a radiologist, who testified that they found no evidence of organic brain damage, but expressed no view as to White's competence. The prosecution's remaining witnesses, White's jailer and a deputy sheriff, stated that White behaved like other prisoners and appeared to communicate normally with his attorneys. Based primarily upon the testimony of these lay witnesses and his cross-examination of the defense witnesses, the prosecutor urged that the defendant had misled his examiners into believing that he was mentally disturbed.

The judge instructed the jury that "a person is incompetent to stand trial if he does not have sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; or, a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." The jury returned a verdict that stated simply, "We, the jury, find the defendant, ROBERT LEE WHITE, competent to stand trial at the time of this trial, to-wit: January 5, 1977." White was then tried and convicted of capital murder. On appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that it lacked jurisdiction to consider whether White had properly been found competent to stand trial. White v. State, 591 S.W.2d 851, 854-856 (Tex.Cr.App.1979).

White then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. Relying on the opinion of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the District Court denied the petition on the ground that "[t]he evidence adduced was legally sufficient to enable a rational trier of facts to make the same findings which the jury made."

The Court of Appeals affirmed. In searching for the proper standard of review to be applied to the jury verdict of competency to stand trial, the Court of Appeals noted that in Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 95 S.Ct. 896, 43 L.Ed.2d 103 (1975), this Court found it necessary to undertake its own analysis of the facts concerning the defendant's competency so that " 'the appropriate enforcement of the federal right may be assured.' " Id., at 174-175, and n. 10, 95 S.Ct., at 905, and n. 10. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals rejected the "hard look" given the trial court's conclusion in Drope. 669 F.2d 973, at 976. In its place, the Court of Appeals adopted the more deferential review set forth in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979), which governs claims that the evidence at trial was insufficient to prove the elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Under Jackson a court must determine "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." 443 U.S., at 319, 99 S.Ct., at 2789 (emphasis in original). Applying this standard to the issue of competency, the court below determined that there had been sufficient evidence for a rational trier to find White competent to stand trial.


Whether a defendant is competent to stand trial is a question of federal constitutional law. Due process forbids a state to try or convict a defendant who is incompetent to stand trial. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 95 S.Ct. 896, 43 L.Ed.2d 103 (1975); Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 86 S.Ct. 836, 15 L.Ed.2d 815 (1966). To be competent to stand trial for the purposes of the Due Process Clause, the defendant must have the "capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense." Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S., at 171, 95 S.Ct., at 903.2

A federal court acting on a writ of habeas corpus must make an independent decision on the question of competence, see Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S., at 175, and n. 10, 95 S.Ct., at 905, and n. 10, just as it must decide any other federal constitutional question independently of a state court determination.3 In each case, "the federal habeas petitioner who claims he is detained pursuant to a final judgment of a state court in violation of the United States Constitution is entitled to have the federal habeas court make its own independent determination on the merits of that claim." Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 87, 97 S.Ct. 2497, 2506, 53 L.Ed.2d 594 (1977).

In making an independent appraisal of the habeas petitioner's constitutional claim, a federal district judge must sometimes defer to a state court's resolution of "issues of fact" underlying its determination. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Those antecedent findings which a habeas court may be required to accept are limited "to what are termed basic, primary, or historical facts: facts 'in the sense of a recital of external events and the credibility of their narrators. . . .' " Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 309, n. 6, 83 S.Ct. 745, 755, n. 6, 9 L.Ed.2d 770 (1963), quoting Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 506, 73 S.Ct. 397, 445, 97 L.Ed. 469 (1953) (opinion of Frankfurter, J.). Express factual determinations by a state court after a full and fair evidentiary hearing generally must be accepted unless they are not fairly supported by the record. Sumner v. Mata, 449 U.S. 539, 101 S.Ct. 764, 66 L.Ed.2d 722 (1981); Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S., at 312-313, 316, 83 S.Ct., at 756-57, 758; 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(8). Even where the state trier has made no express findings, this presumption of correctness must also be afforded to findings of fact which "the District Court [can] reconstruct" either because the trier's "view of the facts is plain from his opinion or because of other indicia." Id., at 314-315, 83 S.Ct., at 758.

In this case, the jury was not asked to make and did not make any express findings to support its legal conclusion. Nor can such findings can be fairly reconstructed.4 Therefore the District Court was obligated to make its own factual determinations on the basis of the record of the state proceeding and, if necessary to resolve disputed issues of fact, on an evidentiary hearing. Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S., at 313-316, 318-319, 83 S.Ct., at 757-58, 759-60.5

This Court's opinion in Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 95 S.Ct. 896, 43 L.Ed.2d 103 (1975), indicates that when a state court determination of competency is unaccompanied by findings of fact, a federal court must undertake independent factfinding, as it would in comparable "situation[s] in which the 'so-called facts and their constitutional significance [are] . . . so blended that they cannot be severed in consideration.' " Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S., at 315, 83 S.Ct., at 758, quoting Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534, 540, 546, 81 S.Ct. 735, 739, 742, 5 L.Ed.2d 760 (1961). The question in Drope was whether the defendant "was deprived of due process of law by the failure of the trial court to order a psychiatric examination with respect to his competence to stand trial." 420 U.S., at 163-164, 95 S.Ct., at 899-900. The state courts had "viewed...

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