Appeal Held in Abeyance Pending Report from Trial Court on Defendant’s Competency

In an interesting case, People v. Jefferson (2d Dept. 3/31/2009), the Second Department held an appeal in abeyance so that the trial court to hold a hearing and file a report ("with all convenient speed") on whether the defendant was competent before she entered her guilty plea to Assault in the Second Degree.

The Second Department was troubled by an exchange during the lower court's colloquy with the defendant:

Supreme Court inquired of the defendant as to whether she was at that
time under the influence of drugs, she responded, "Yeah, I just came
from the psychiatric ward." The court failed to follow up on this, but
rather immediately asked her whether she fully understood all the
questions it had asked, to which she responded, "Yeah." Thereafter,
when the court asked the defendant if it was clear to her what was
going on, she responded, "I'm confused." When the court further asked
her what she was confused about, and she responded, "I don't know. I'm
depressed." The court then simply asked the defendant if her depression
stopped her from understanding the proceedings, to which she responded,
"No." At that point, and without further inquiry of defense counsel as
to the defendant's mental state, the court proceeded to accept the
defendant's plea of guilty.

Lesson learned?  When a defendant raises a red flag about his or her competency — by mentioning things like "psychiatric ward," "I'm depressed," or "I'm confused" — a detailed inquiry must be made.  Here, merely asking the defendant if her depression impeded her understanding was insufficient.  Her one word answer was not adequate to gauge whether, in fact, she understood the nature of the proceedings and was able to assist in her own defense.  At a minimum, the plea court should have inquired about the length of the defendant's stay in the psychiatric facility, what was the diagnosis, what medications she was on, and whether defense counsel thought she was competent to proceed.  (LC)

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