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United States v. Myers

decided: October 20, 1967.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA EX REL. GEORGE LEE RIVERS, APPELLANT,
v.
DAVID N. MYERS, SUPERINTENDENT, STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT GRATERFORD, PENNSYLVANIA. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA EX REL. GEORGE LEE RIVERS V. DAVID N. MYERS, SUPERINTENDENT, STATE CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION AT GRATERFORD, PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT



Hastie, Forman, and Smith, Circuit Judges.

Author: Forman

Opinion OF THE COURT

FORMAN, Circuit Judge.

These cases involve appeals from an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granting in part the petition of George Lee Rivers for a writ of habeas corpus. In No. 15377, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from that part of the order implementing the District Court's holding that two confessions given by the petitioner were unconstitutionally obtained. In No. 15376, the relator appeals from that part of the order based on the District Court's finding that the relator was not incompetent to enter a guilty plea or to understand and assist in the sentencing proceedings against him in 1957. The background of this case, including extensive prior litigation, is detailed in the District Court's opinion, reported at 240 F. Supp. 39 (1965).

The offense for which the relator is presently incarcerated and under sentence of death is the fatal shooting of the proprietor of a Philadelphia pharmacy during the course of a robbery on March 26, 1957. Rivers pleaded guilty to a charge of murder, and his two confessions, which portrayed him as the lookout man for two accomplices, Cater and Williams, were used in a proceeding to determine the degree of murder and the penalty.

The lines of analysis and characterization of events in the present case are shaped by a crucial constant factor -- the psychological makeup of the relator. At the time of the commission of the crime and the confession, Rivers had just reached the chronological age of eighteen. During his twelve years in school, the highest level he attained was the second term of the second grade. Thereafter he was assigned to a special class for orthogenic backward pupils where he remained until 1955 when he was placed in the Boone Disciplinary School. He left the school system in March 1956, about a year before the crime, after having passed the age of compulsory attendance. Intelligence tests administered showed an I.Q. of 69 recorded in 1947; 75 in 1955; and in 1959, two years after the crime, 77 (verbal 69, 91 performance), though one psychiatrist testified that his I.Q. could have been lower than 77 in 1957.

Rivers has been examined by at least four psychiatrically trained physicians, whose findings are in accord in significant respects. As a result of an examination made on June 5, 1957, Dr. Andrew Mallin reported in part as follows:

"From the psychiatric standpoint he is emotionally dull, blunted, and very slow in speech. * * * Delusions and hallucinations are present. * * * He has had visions of his dead grandfather since about the age of 13. * * * Orientation is good, but memory is defective; he cannot give the date of the homicide and cannot give other details of his life. Intelligence and reasoning are impaired. * * * Judgment and insight are impaired.

"Diagnosis: Mental deficiency with psychosis, moderately severe, chronic.

"Conclusions and recommendations: This man is psychotic and moderately mentally defective, probably a low grade moron. He is very susceptible and easily led by others."

Dr. John G. Torney, who examined the relator in September 1959 at the Eastern State Penitentiary, described Rivers's condition "at the present time" as sociopathic rather than psychotic, and found no mnemonic defects. He agreed, however, that petitioner's "reflective abilities are at a defective level," and stated that psychological testing indicated "a highly impulsive individual whose behavior is governed chiefly by immediate need and desire to the exclusion of rational consideration," and that he could be "easily led."

Dr. Silas L. Warner, who also examined the relator in 1959, testified that he had "a very limited capacity to think. * * * He is limited in considering all the factors that go into certain acts. He is not capable of bringing together all the necessary knowledge to make a proper decision," and that he was of a class of persons "highly suggestible and leadable."

Dr. Jonas B. Robitscher, who saw the relator approximately once a month during an 18 month period in 1961 through 1963 as a consulting psychiatrist at Graterford Prison described his observation of Rivers as evincing a course of

"obsessive thinking, rumination, great depression, great anxiety * * * nausea and vomiting, even when the prisoner was on tranquillizers * * * tremor * * * paranoid trends, and later more serious symptoms appeared, hysterical laughter, jaw cracking, and * * * inappropriate emotional response, all of which ...


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