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Smith v. Freeman

argued: September 6, 1989.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil No. 87-7931.

Becker, Cowen and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Cowen


COWEN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal arises from an order of the district court denying appellant Jerry L. Smith ("Smith") a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254 (1982). Because we conclude that Smith was not afforded a full and fair evidentiary hearing in state court on his claim that his guilty plea was involuntary due to mental incompetence, we will vacate the order of the district court denying the writ of habeas corpus and remand for further proceedings.


According to the prosecution, on February 19, 1981, Smith and his co-conspirator and ex-wife, Brenda Meinkrantz ("Meinkrantz"), drove from Missouri to Schwenksville, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania for the purpose of stealing money from the apartment of eighty-year-old Martha Thomas ("Thomas"). Late in the evening of February 20, after they checked into a local motel, Meinkrantz drove Smith to the apartment of Thomas and left him there.

A few hours later, Meinkrantz returned to Thomas apartment, met Smith inside and helped him carry out a tan overnight bag. The bag contained $700 in stolen cash. Later that day, the body of Thomas was discovered in her bedroom by police. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that she had died of manual strangulation.

Smith was apprehended a month later and charged with numerous crimes in connection with this incident, including the murder of Thomas. On September 11, 1981, Smith entered a plea of guilty to the charges of second-degree murder, conspiracy and burglary in exchange for a recommendation from the prosecution that he be given a life sentence on the murder charge and suspended sentences on the conspiracy and burglary charges. All the remaining charges were nol prossed. Smith was thereafter sentenced to life imprisonment by Judge William T. Nicholas.*fn1 Since the defects present at the September 11 guilty plea colloquy between Judge Nicholas, Smith and Smith's court-appointed counsel, Thomas J. Speers ("Speers"), form the basis of Smith's current habeas claim, we discuss this colloquy in some detail.

Before accepting Smith's plea, Judge Nicholas ascertained that Smith was being held in Norristown State Hospital ("Norristown"), a psychiatric facility, had been committed there for two weeks prior to his decision to plead guilty, and received medication the night before. App. at 32-34. Smith told the court that this medication was to soothe his nerves and help him sleep, but that it did not affect his judgment. App. at 42. The court accepted Smith's characterization of his medication and sought neither its name nor any expert opinion as to its effects.*fn2

Smith also informed the court that he had experienced mental problems in the past, including a psychiatric episode while in the Air Force which resulted in discharge after a period of hospitalization. App. at 34-35, 37. At this point in the proceeding, Judge Nicholas, noting that Speers had been authorized to retain a psychiatrist, asked what that psychiatrist's opinion was as to Smith's competency. Speers represented to the court that the psychiatrist, Dr. Robert L. Sadoff, in consultation with two other specialists, had informed Speers by letter that it was their opinion that Smith was competent. App. at 38-39. In addition, Speers stated that he had spoken by telephone with Dr. Sadoff that very morning and that Dr. Sadoff had recently received "various reports from various agencies and other individuals who [had] examined" Smith. App. at 39-40. Speers told the court that, based on these contacts, Dr. Sadoff was still of the opinion that Smith was competent. Id.

As later revealed, Speers' representations to the court were false. Dr. Sadoff's August 17 letter stated, contrary to the representation of Speers, that it was his opinion that Smith "is not mentally competent to proceed at the present time." App. at 301.*fn3 Moreover, because Dr. Sadoff did not re-examine Smith during the interim, he could not have told Speers in a later telephone conversation that he was still of the opinion that Smith was competent. In order for Speers representation to the court of Dr. Sadoff's opinion on the day of the guilty plea to be true, the doctor would have had to completely reverse his professional opinion in the space of less than a month with no basis appearing in the record for such an about face. Furthermore, in his letter to Speers, Dr. Sadoff referenced only one other psychologist, Dr. Gerald Cooke, whose psychiatric opinion he had sought. As actually reported by Dr. Sadoff to Speers, Dr. Cooke also diagnosed "Smith as borderline with a question about his competency." App. at 300.

Other facts lend credence to a strong inference that Speers misrepresented the contents of his telephone conversation with Dr. Sadoff on the day of the plea. Contrary to Speers' suggestion in court, the various "individuals who [had] examined" Smith up to this point appear to have had serious concerns about his mental health. Smith had been committed to Norristown because prison staff psychologists believed he was suicidal. App. at 108. Upon commitment, the hospital staff placed Smith on "suicidal precautions." App. at 110. While at Norristown, Smith was extremely disturbed, showed an inability to process information and manifested physical disturbances such as twitching movements. App. at 110-15.

As the testimony of Dr. Paul A. Grayce, one of Smith's treating physicians at Norristown, and Nancy Haines, a case worker at Norristown, established at Smith's later nunc pro tunc hearing, the mental health professionals in contact with Smith during the period immediately after his plea had grave doubts about his competency. Dr. Grayce testified that although Smith was not immediately diagnosed upon admission, his eventual diagnosis sometime after September 11 was that of a "border-line personality disorder." App. at 124. Dr. Grayce explained that this condition is marked by instability in mood, feeling and perception of oneself. Id. Under stress, persons with this disorder can rapidly "decompensate," and become psychotic and disorganized in their thinking. App. at 125. In addition, Dr. Grayce noted some marked dependency characteristics of Smith, as well as his "border-line personality disorder." Dr. Grayce stated that Smith tended to make decisions and responses based on "outside influences, which he perceives to be significant," e.g., "other people's opinions, comments and/or statements. . . . App. at 125-26, 208. Haines testified that, as of September 14, Smith appeared extremely anxious--"as though he were a frightened child"--and constantly repeated nonsense phrases in response to most questions. App. at 201-02.

However, without the benefit of Dr. Sadoff's true opinion, and also without the benefit of any other expert opinion as to Smith's competency, Judge Nicholas accepted the representation of Speers, as well as the statement of Smith himself, that he was competent. Thus, the court concluded that "[based] upon the colloquy with the defendant . . . the Court finds that [Smith] has knowingly, ...

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