May 1, 2015 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court has clarified that when a defendant asserts competency to pursue postconviction relief but defense counsel disagrees, the state must prove the defendant is competent by a preponderance of the evidence.
Roddee Daniel was 15 years old when charged with first-degree intentional homicide and armed burglary as a party to a crime. Four years earlier, Daniel began treatment for mental illness, and his defense counsel questioned his competency to stand trial.
After an evaluation, the trial court declared him competent to stand trial, a jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to life in prison. While incarcerated, the Department of Corrections determined that Daniel suffered from a psychotic disorder.
He was a transferred to a resource center for treatment, and the treating psychiatrist challenged his competency and requested that Daniel be civilly committed.
The court subsequently ordered civil commitment due to mental illness and ruled that Daniel was not competent to refuse treatment or psychotropic medication, which allowed medication and treatment to be administered without Daniel’s consent.
Before pursuing postconviction relief, Daniel’s defense counsel again challenged Daniel’s competency, noting that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and a psychologist believed Daniel was not competent to pursue postconviction relief.
However, after Daniel was transferred to a state psychiatric institute for evaluation, a forensic psychiatrist determined that Daniel had a disorder but not mental illness. He determined that Daniel was competent to understand the appeals proceedings.
At a subsequent competency hearing, the court placed the burden on defense counsel to show Daniel was incompetent. Daniel claimed that he was competent.
Under Wis. Stat. section 971.14(4)(b), governing competency proceedings, defendants asserting competency are deemed competent unless the state shows otherwise by clear and convincing evidence. If a defendant asserts that he or she is incompetent to proceed, the state most prove competency by a preponderance of the evidence.
But in this case, Daniel asserted his competence and the state agreed that Daniel was competent, so the court required defense counsel to prove Daniel was incompetent by clear and convincing evidence, which defense counsel failed to do.
An appeals court reversed, ruling that the defense counsel had the burden to show incompetency, but at a lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard. It remanded the case for a new competency hearing to apply that lower burden of proof.
In State v. Daniel, 2015 WI 44 (April 29, 2015), a unanimous (6-0) supreme court ruled that the state always has the burden of proof when determining whether a defendant is competent to pursue postconviction relief, regardless of the defendant’s position.
The court noted that section 971.14 does not directly state who bears the burden of proof when defendant and defense counsel disagree on competency, and does not directly govern in postconviction hearings. But the court used the statute as guidance.
“Our interpretation of that statute … supports a conclusion that regardless of whether it is the defendant or defense counsel that raises competency, once the issue is raised, the burden is on the state,” Justice Bradley wrote for the unanimous court.
The court noted that holding otherwise would create a conflict “between an attorney’s duty as an advocate and an attorney’s duty as an officer of the court.”
While attorneys have a duty of confidentiality to clients, they also have a duty to the court to raise the issue of a client’s competency whenever there is reason to doubt it.
“There is an obvious difference between raising an issue and having to prove it,” Bradley wrote. “Requiring defense counsel to prove a client’s incompetence could force them to divulge “significant information gained through private communications,” Bradley noted, which “militates in favor of placing the burden on the State.”