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07/03/86 Thomas L. Sanderlin, v. United States of America

July 3, 1986




Before: MIKVA and SILBERMAN, Circuit Judges, and MCGOWAN, Senior Circuit Judge.



Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge MIKVA.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge SILBERMAN.

MIKVA, Circuit Judge: Involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital is one of the most serious restrictions a state may impose on a person's liberty. This case involves the procedural steps that the government must follow before depriving a recently acquitted criminal defendant of his freedom. Appellant Thomas Sanderlin was tried for committing a crime, but a magistrate found him Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity . He was committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he has been confined since June 1983. Sanderlin claims that his continued detention is illegal because he has been denied statutory rights that are available to certain defendants who are adjudged NGI. The validity of this claim rests on appellant's contention that the insanity defense was imposed on him by the trial court.

Although the question is close, we agree that Sanderlin never raised the insanity defense, and that consequently he is entitled to the full procedural protections that attach to civil commitment proceedings. We therefore reverse the magistrate's decision and remand for further consideration. I. A. Background

On December 30, 1982, Thomas Sanderlin was arrested and charged with making threatening phone calls to a bank in an attempt to extort money. The evidence against Sanderlin was overwhelming: he had identified himself on the phone as the caller, and one of the bank employees who had received the threats recognized the voice.

At the presentment hearing in January 1983, the federal magistrate had Sanderling temporarily committed to St. Elizabeths. The magistrate ordered the hospital officials to determine whether defendant was competent to stand trial, and also to determine whether his conduct was the result of a mental disease or defect. On March 3 the Hospital reported that although Sanderlin had a basic understanding of what he had done, he could not appreciate the nature of the proceedings against him and could not assist his attorney in preparing the case. In addition, the doctors found that Sanderlin's conduct was the result of chronic, paranoid schizophrenia, which made him unable to conform his conduct to the dictates of the law.

On May 3, 1983, St. Elizabeths again wrote to the court, saying that Sanderlin was now "marginally" competent to be tried, but repeating its earlier assessment that defendant was legally insane. The magistrate promptly scheduled a competency hearing for May 18; she did not make a competency finding on that day, however, because of a misunderstanding between the parties about the purpose of the hearing. The court and parties agreed to continue the case until June 1, 1983, at which time there would be a competency determination, to be followed, if feasible, by a trial. Sanderlin was present at the May 18 hearing.

At the time of his arrest, Sanderlin was charged with making extortious threats, a felony under 18 U.S.C. § 875 (1982). But on the day of trial, Sanderlin's lawyer, Theodore Christensen, informed the court that the case would proceed under a misdemeanor information rather than a felony complaint. See D.C. Code § 22-507 (1981) ("Threats to do bodily harm"). Christensen then informed the court that Sanderlin was competent to stand trial. On questioning by the magistrate, Sanderlin acknowledged that he was willing to be tried that day. He also signed a form waiving his rights to a jury trial and a 30-day continuance. Even though the waiver stated that the magistrate had explained the charges and the possible penalties to Sanderlin, no such advisement occurred.

The government called only two witnesses: an FBI agent who recounted the facts, and Dr. Thomas Polley, a St. Elizabeths psychologist. Dr. Polley testified that it was the unanimous opinion of the hospital staff that Sanderlin suffered from a mental disease that prevented him from obeying the law. Christensen did not challenge this assessment during cross-examination. The defense also did not put on any evidence of its own, and did not make an opening or closing statement.

The magistrate found Sanderlin not guilty by reason of insanity. United States v. Sanderlin, No. 82-0595, Trans. at 25 (D.D.C. June 1, 1983). The court ordered that defendant be immediately committed to St. Elizabeths, with the requirement that he be given a hearing within 50 days to determine if he posed a danger to himself or others. See D.C. Code § 24-301(d) (1981). Sanderlin, however, waived his right to this post-commitment hearing.

On June 7, 1984, one year after his commitment began, Sanderlin filed a motion for unconditional release in federal district court. See D.C. Code § 301(k) (1981) ("the § 301(k) motion"). Under section 301(k), a person committed after being found NGI may petition the court if he believes the existence or the duration of his detention is unjustified. Sanderlin claimed that his detention was illegal because he did not "assent or in any way rely upon the defense of insanity in this case either prior to or at the trial." He claimed that the defense had been imposed on him by the prosecutor and the court, and that therefore under the D.C. Code he could only be confined pursuant to a civil commitment proceeding.

The magistrate held a hearing on the motion on June 20, 1984. The government introduced three witnesses.

The first was the prosecutor from Sanderlin's trial, John Finnegan. He said that after defendant was found competent to stand trial, he spoke to Christensen about the best way to proceed with the case. Finnegan said that the two lawyers struck a deal ("the agreement"): Christensen agreed to stipulate to the facts and not to contest an insanity finding; in return, the government agreed to substitute a misdemeanor information for the felony charge, because both lawyers thought that a misdemeanor would look better on Sanderlin's hospital record. Finnegan testified that it was understood that the government would put on the evidence of insanity, and that Christensen would conduct only a perfunctory cross-examination. The prosecutor said that he believed at the time that Sanderlin personally had agreed to this arrangement.

The second witness was Christensen, Sanderlin's trial counsel (a different lawyer represented Sanderlin at the § 301(k) hearing). Christensen also testified that he met with Finnegan and orally agreed to a "stipulated NGI" verdict in return for a reduced charge. Christensen said that he "probably" would have discussed the insanity defense with the prosecution even if Sanderlin had not wanted to raise the issue, but stated that he would not have allowed an NGI acquittal against his client's wishes. Christensen was prevented from testifying whether Sanderlin had in fact decided to accept the agreement; the magistrate agreed with Sanderlin's counsel that this information was protected by the attorney-client privilege. All Christensen was allowed to say was that he had explained the defense and its implications to Sanderlin before the trial.

The final witness was Dr. Polley. He said that until a month before trial, Sanderlin had indicated that he did not want to rely on the NGI defense. A few weeks before trial, however, Polley said that Sanderlin mentioned that he was "considering" going along with the agreement. Polley also testified that four days after trial, Sanderlin said that he had agreed to a stipulated NGI, hoping that the charge reduction would lead to a shorter period of hospitalization.

On March 25, 1985, the magistrate denied the § 301(k) motion, holding that the NGI defense had not been imposed on defendant. The magistrate rejected the argument that defendant had never agreed to a stipulated NGI; she found that at the ...

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