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  • WisBar News
    April 12, 2016

    Supreme Court Upholds Conviction After Retrospective Competency Decisions

    Joe Forward

    April 12, 2016 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court (4-2) has upheld the conviction of a defendant who argued that he was incompetent to stand trial or be sentenced for a charge of second-degree sexual assault, reversing an appeals court decision.

    The circuit court in Milwaukee County entered the conviction judgment against defendant Jimmie Lee Smith and sentenced him to 25 years in prison, with 15 years of extended supervision upon release. Smith filed a post-conviction motion for relief.

    After a “retrospective competency evaluation,” Smith’s motion was denied. But an appeals court reversed, concluding the postconviction court erred in its decision.

    But in State v. Smith, 2016 WI 23, a supreme court majority (4-2) reversed, concluding the appeals court applied the wrong standard in reviewing the case. 

    “Reviewing the evidence under the proper standard, we conclude that the postconviction court’s finding that Smith was competent to stand trial and be sentenced is not clearly erroneous,” wrote Chief Justice Patience Roggensack for the majority, which included Justices David Prosser, Michael Gableman, and Annette Ziegler.

    Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley dissented. Justice Ziegler wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Rebecca Bradley did not participate in the case.

    Charges in 2009

    A 2009 criminal complaint alleged that in 2007, Smith followed a woman out of a bar and violently beat and raped her. Then he made inculpatory statements to police.

    In pretrial proceedings, the court gave Smith the opportunity challenge the inculpatory statements on the grounds that he did not receive a Miranda warning and the statements were not voluntary. Smith declined in a colloquy with the circuit court judge.

    The case proceeded to trial. During the trial, the judge conducted another colloquy with Smith, noting he could testify or not testify. Smith said he didn’t want to testify. His competency was never questioned and ultimately he was convicted.

    Before the judge imposed the maximum sentence, Smith made statements that had nothing to do with the crime for which he was convicted. His long-winded tirade about people and problems could not be comprehended in any meaningful way.

    The sentencing judge cut him off and imposed the sentence. His postconviction lawyer requested a competency hearing to determine if Smith was competent to assist in the postconviction proceedings. Two separate physicians concluded that Smith was not competent but he could become competent within a reasonable amount of time.

    After two postponements, the court ultimately concluded that Smith was not competent and it was not likely that he would become competent. A guardian ad litem was appointed. Then his postconviction lawyer filed a motion to vacate the conviction.

    Was He Competent?

    Smith argued that the trial court and his own lawyer had reason to doubt his competency and should have moved for or sua sponte held a competency hearing.

    He also argued that he simply was not competent to stand trial. The same two doctors from the prior hearing conducted a “retrospective competency evaluation” based on records that could indicate competency during that time period three years earlier.

    For instance, one physician noted a substantial record of mental illness going back 20 years, and said jail records indicated rambling speech and unusual behavior. The doctor said there was “substantial cause” to doubt that Smith was competent to stand trial.

    However, the physician noted that he rarely performed “retrospective” evaluations. Less than 10 of the approximately 2,000 competency evaluations he performed during his career have been "retrospective."

    The other doctor noted evidence of Smith’s psychotic disorder and concluded that Smith was incompetent at trial “to a reasonable degree of professional certainty.” She too admitted that she had performed very few “retrospective” evaluations in her career.

    Smith’s trial counsel, a 25-year veteran, testified that he met with Smith about seven times and did not have a reason to doubt his competency as the two discussed strategy. Counsel noted that Smith participated in plea negotiations and jury selection, and viewed Smith’s ramblings as an indication of anger, not mental health issues.

    Ultimately the postconviction judge gave more weight to trial counsel’s testimony, since he interacted with Smith multiple times during the course of the representation. The judge noted the flaws of a retrospective evaluation, as the doctors highlighted.

    Majority Upholds Competency Decision

    The appeals court explained that the postconviction court could be reversed if the judge exhibited an “erroneous exercise of discretion” or made a “clearly erroneous decision.”

    The appeals court concluded that an “erroneous exercise of discretion” occurred when the judge gave more weight to the testimony of Smith’s trial counsel and not the doctors who had reviewed extensive records to conclude that Smith was not competent.

    But the supreme court reversed, concluding that competency decisions cannot be overturned unless “clearly erroneous.” That is, the decision must be “totally unsupported by the facts” in the record. An erroneous exercise of discretion is not enough.

    The majority explained that due process prohibits the conviction of incompetent defendants, and there are statutory procedures when competency is in doubt.

    “Importantly, the inquiry whether a defendant is competent to stand trial is a judicial, not a medical, determination,” wrote Chief Justice Roggensack.

    The majority also noted that when the record reveals a reason to doubt competency, the proper remedy is remand for a retrospective competency hearing, which Smith already received. “Therefore, the issue appropriate for appellate review is whether that factual finding of the postconviction court is totally unsupported by facts in the record. …”

    “[T]he record does contain evidence that supports the postconviction court’s finding that Smith was competent at trial and sentencing,” wrote the chief justice, noting the postconviction judge “was not required to accept the testimony of the experts.”


    In a concurring opinion, Justice Annette Ziegler agreed that the appeals court did not apply the correct standard and the postconviction court’s findings were not clearly erroneous. However, she wrote separately to refrain from formulations of the clearly erroneous standard in the context of retrospective competency determinations.

    “The court may well be correct in applying the ‘totally unsupported’ formulation of the clearly erroneous standard to retrospective competency determinations, but this case is not the setting to decide that question,” Zeigler wrote.

    She questioned whether a “particularized” clearly erroneous standard is applicable when postconviction courts review proceedings held before trial courts, and noted that the parties did not argue or brief that question.


    Justice Shirley Abrahamson, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, wrote a dissenting opinion. She agreed that the “clearly erroneous” standard applies to retrospective competency evaluations. But Abrahamson said the standard is not particularized.

    Rather, a finding is clearly erroneous, even if there is evidence to support it, if the reviewing court “is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed,” Justice Abrahamson concluded.

    She said the majority’s formulation of the clearly erroneous standard “breaks new ground” and the majority also granted too much deference to the postconviction court.

    “[A]pplying the accepted formulations of the ‘clearly erroneous’ standard of review to the facts of the instant case, I am left with a ‘definite and firm conviction’ that the postconviction court made a mistake in finding the defendant, Smith, competent to stand trial,” wrote Abrahamson, who would have remanded for a new trial.

    Related Article

    Court Clarifies State’s Burden on Competency in Postconviction ProceedingsWisBar News (May 1, 2015)

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