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U.S. v. Leggett

December 03, 1998


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania D.C. Criminal Action No. 94-cr-00097

Before: Roth and Mckee, Circuit Judges O'NEILL,*fn1 District Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roth, Circuit Judge

Argued May 18, 1998

Opinion filed December 3, 1998


Michael K. Leggett appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence entered in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. He was convicted of assaulting a prison official in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111. Leggett makes three claims on appeal: (1) the district court erred in not ordering sua sponte a competency hearing before the commencement of the trial, (2) the district court failed to ensure that Leggett validly waived his right to testify, and (3) the district court improperly concluded that Leggett forfeited his right to counsel at sentencing when he physically attacked his attorney. We find each of Leggett's claims to be without merit and will therefore affirm the judgment of the district court.


In February 1994, Leggett, who was serving a prison term for bank robbery and assault at a federal penitentiary in Indiana, was transferred to the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in White Deer, Pennsylvania. Upon his arrival at Allenwood, Leggett resided in a single cell. On April 19 of that year, Dr. Stephen Karten, Allenwood's chief psychologist, recommended that Leggett remain in a single

cell due to his inability to live peacefully with another inmate. However, due to an influx of new inmates, some single-cell inmates had to be relocated to double cells. On April 21, Leggett's name was taken off the list of inmates eligible for single cells, and Leggett was required to move his belongings to another cell in anticipation of being assigned a cellmate.

Donn Troutman served as Leggett's unit manager at this time and was responsible for Leggett's housing assignment. When Leggett discovered that he was losing his single-cell status, he went to Troutman's office to complain. Leggett told Troutman that he had been waiting all day to speak to him and, after Troutman stepped outside his office, Leggett punched him in the face. Leggett attempted additional blows which were deflected by Troutman. Leggett then grabbed Troutman's necktie and tried to strangle him with it. Eventually, Troutman, who was five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than Leggett, was able to subdue him with the assistance of several prison guards. Troutman suffered multiple cuts to his face as a result of the attack.

An assistant federal public defender, D. Toni Byrd, was assigned to represent Leggett at his trial for the assault on Troutman. However, due to disputes between Leggett and Byrd concerning jury selection and delay of the trial, Leggett sought to discharge Byrd and requested the appointment of new counsel. On July 26, 1995, the district court held a hearing at which Leggett and Byrd explained the bases for their disagreements. After the hearing, the district court denied Leggett's motion to dismiss his counsel. Nevertheless, several days later, Byrd sought leave to withdraw from the case, due mainly to threats of physical harm.*fn2 The district court allowed Byrd to withdraw and, in her place, assigned G. Scott Gardner to represent Leggett. Gardner represented Leggett throughout the trial, which began on November 3, 1995, and continued on November 7, 8 and 9. At one point during the trial (on November 8), Gardner expressed concern to the district court that Leggett, against the advice of counsel, wished to testify. The district court expressly encouraged Leggett to heed Gardner's advice. On the following day, at the close of evidence, Leggett had not yet testified and the district court asked Gardner at sidebar whether the defense had any further evidence to present. Gardner indicated that the defense had nothing further. On November 13, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

In the ensuing months, Leggett, both with the assistance of Gardner and pro se, moved to set aside the verdict and issued objections to the presentence report. The district court denied the motions, overruled the objections, and set sentencing for March 25, 1996. On March 25, Leggett entered the courtroom in the company of two United States Marshals. Upon seeing Gardner in the courtroom, Leggett lunged at his attorney and punched him in the head, knocking him to the ground. While Gardner lay, supine, Leggett straddled him and began to choke, scratch and spit on him. The Marshals and a probation officer restrained Leggett and removed him from the courtroom. Gardner was taken to a hospital by emergency medical personnel and treated for cuts, scratches and bruises. The district court then allowed Gardner to withdraw as counsel and concluded that Leggett had forfeited his right to counsel for the sentencing hearing.

In April 1996, Leggett moved for a competency hearing. The district court granted this motion so that it could determine whether Leggett was competent to represent himself at sentencing. The district court appointed yet another attorney, Thomas Thornton, to represent Leggett solely at the competency hearing. In October 1996, the district court conducted the competency hearing, at which it heard testimony from various mental-health professionals concerning Leggett's behavior. At the Conclusion of the hearing, the district court reaffirmed its decision that Leggett had forfeited his right to counsel and concluded that he was competent to represent himself at sentencing.

In November 1996, Leggett appeared for sentencing without counsel. The district court imposed a sentence of 36 months' imprisonment to be served consecutively to the other terms Leggett had previously received. This appeal followed.


On appeal, Leggett makes the following three claims: (1) the district court erred in declining sua sponte to order a competency hearing before the start of the trial, (2) the district court improperly failed to make certain that Leggett validly waived his right to testify during the trial, and (3) the district court erroneously concluded that Leggett forfeited his right to counsel at sentencing. The district court had jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3231. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

A. The Pre-Trial Competency Hearing

We will first consider Leggett's claim that the district court erred in declining to conduct a competency hearing before the trial began. Since we must decide whether the district court properly applied the standard for determining the necessity of a competency hearing, our review is plenary. United States v. Renfroe, 825 F.2d 763, 766 (3d Cir. 1987). We note that, if the proper legal standard has been applied, factual findings regarding competency are reviewed for clear error. United States v. Velasquez, 885 F.2d 1076, 1089 (3d Cir. 1989); Renfroe, 825 F.2d at 766 n.4.

Fundamental to an adversarial system of Justice is the precept that "a person whose mental condition is such that [the person] lacks the capacity to understand the nature and the object of the proceedings[,] . . . to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing [a] defense may not be subjected to a trial." Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 171 (1975). The conviction of a legally incompetent defendant violates due process. Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 378 (1966). In keeping with this unwillingness to try incompetents, we have a statutory directive providing that a criminal defendant whose competency is in question may

be subjected to a competency hearing. 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a).*fn3 If neither the defendant nor the government moves for such a hearing, the trial court may do so on its own motion. Id. To do so, however, the trial court must have "reasonable cause" to believe that the defendant is "presently" suffering from an impairment resulting in mental incompetency. Id.; see also Renfroe, 825 F.2d at 766-77 (holding that court must have "reasonable doubt" as to defendant's ability to grasp proceedings to order a competency hearing); United States v. Davis, 93 F.3d 1286, 1290 (6th Cir. 1996) (noting that district court must have " `reasonable cause to believe' the defendant [is] incompetent") (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a)); United States v. George, 85 F.3d 1433, 1437 (9th Cir. 1996) (stating that a finding of "reasonable cause" dictates whether a court conducts a competency hearing); United States v. Lebron, 76 F.3d 29, 32 (1st Cir.) (same), cert. denied, 518 U.S. 1011 (1996); United States v. Nichols, 56 F.3d 403, 414 (2d Cir. 1995) (same); United States v. Morgano, 39 F.3d 1358, 1375 (7th Cir. 1994) (affirming district court's denial of motion for competency hearing based on absence of reasonable cause to doubt defendant's competency); United States v. Williams, 998 F.2d 258, 266 (5th Cir. 1993) (affirming district court's denial of motion for psychiatric examination due to absence of reasonable cause to doubt defendant's competency).

A defendant is competent to stand trial if (1) the defendant has the " `present ability to consult with [defense counsel] with a reasonable degree of rational understanding' " and (2) the defendant has a " `rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings.' " Drope, 420 U.S. at 172 (quoting Dusky v. United States , 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960)); Renfroe, 825 F.2d at 766-77; Lebron, 76 F.3d at 31; Nichols, 56 F.3d at 410; United States v. Soldevila-Lopez, 17 F.3d 480, 489 (1st Cir. 1994). In determining whether a defendant satisfies this two-prong test, a court must consider a number of factors, including: "evidence of a defendant's irrational behavior, [the defendant's] demeanor at trial, and any prior medical opinion on competence to stand trial." Drope, 420 U.S. at 180. However, due to the vicissitudes of all cases, a court must be cognizant that "[t]here are . . . nofixed or immutable signs which invariably indicate the need for [a competency hearing]." Id. There is no predetermined formula for making a finding of reasonable cause. A court must simply look at the unique circumstances of the case and decide whether the defendant (1) has the capacity to assist in her or his own defense and (2) comprehends the nature and possible consequences of a trial. If either prong is not met, a court has reasonable cause to order a competency hearing. We will now consider whether Leggett satisfied these criteria.

Leggett argues that his inability to assist in his own defense was evident from the July 26 pre-trial hearing at which he sought the dismissal of Byrd, his then-trial counsel. At that hearing, Byrd expressed her concern that Leggett's recalcitrance impeded her ability to mount a defense when she stated, "I do question whether he has an ability to assist his counsel, which is [a] prong of the competency evaluation." Nonetheless, Byrd emphasized that she was not formally moving for a competency evaluation. During the hearing, moreover, Leggett gave no indication that he would be incapable of assisting in his defense. Although he was at times obstreperous, he did demonstrate an ability to serve his own interests before the court. Over the course of the hearing, Leggett -- without the assistance of counsel -- cross-examined two witnesses, one of whom was Byrd. Furthermore, he made sure he preserved on the record any court ruling he perceived to be in error. For example, when the district court refused to appoint counsel for the pre-trial hearing, Leggett responded, "I want to cite

that as error. I object to that." Leggett even feigned ignorance of basic courtroom procedure in a thinly veiled effort to support his contention that the district court erred in not appointing counsel. When the district court asked Leggett whether he understood that he could not interrupt a witness who was trying to answer a question, Leggett declared, "No, I don't understand that because I'm not a lawyer. . . . And you told me I couldn't have no lawyer so I'm doing the best I can." Based on Leggett's handling of the hearing, the district court concluded, "[I]t seems to me from what he said today, he's on top of this case extremely. And I don't know how a client could be more assistive, if there's such a word . . .. "

We agree with the district court's Conclusion that Leggett seemed more than capable of assisting in his own defense. His exchanges with the district court manifested a working knowledge not only of trial tactics but also of the importance of underscoring potential errors on the record as grounds for appeal. In similar cases, other courts of appeals have interpreted a defendant's ability to participate in court proceedings as a sign of competency. In United States v. Sovie, 122 F.3d 122, 128 (2d Cir. 1997), a defendant argued that a district court erred in denying a motion for a competency examination because the defendant allegedly suffered from a " `split personality.' " The court of appeals for the Second Circuit rejected this argument, noting that the defendant "took notes, conversed with counsel, and reacted reasonably to the admission of evidence." Id. These actions supported the Sovie court's Conclusion that the defendant was "a knowing participant in his defense." 122 F.3d at 128.

In Williams, the court of appeals for the Fifth Circuit confronted the same issue when a defendant appealed from a district court's denial of a motion for a mental examination to determine competency. 998 F.2d 264-67. Although the trial record showed that the defendant tended to become " `extremely agitated' " and incoherent, the Williams court affirmed the district court's decision. Id. at 265-66. Despite the defendant's unruly behavior at trial, the court of appeals concluded that he was "rational and able to assist his attorney," id. at 266, based on the

following: (1) the defendant had "advised [counsel] to file certain motions, including the motion for a mental examination"; (2) a short period before moving for a mental examination, the defendant "had been handling pro se a custody case involving his son"; and (3) in connection with the custody case, the defendant had "filed numerous coherent briefs [in a] state court, challenging its jurisdiction over him." Id. at 265.

Leggett appeared to be just as able to contribute to his defense as the defendants in Sovie and Williams. His untoward antics aside, he made a clear effort at the hearing to present arguments and evidence favorable to his position. There was no reason to believe that he would not act with the same purpose of mind once the trial itself began and he had the services of counsel at his disposal. In fact, Leggett's desire to have Byrd discharged was at least partially grounded in what he considered poor strategic decisions on her part and her failure to get him copies of various evidentiary documents.*fn4 It would have indeed been oxymoronic if the district court had ruled sua sponte that the defendant could not aid in his defense because he had too keen an interest in that defense. Leggett's reasons for seeking Byrd's discharge stemmed from his relationship with that particular lawyer and did not seem indicative of a general incapacity to consult with any lawyer. Accordingly, the district court allowed Byrd to withdraw and appointed Gardner in her place. The district court advisedly refrained from reading a competency issue into the mere incompatibility of a defendant and one particular lawyer. The clarity and zeal with which Leggett pursued Byrd's discharge gave the district court no reasonable cause to believe that he was unable to assist counsel in his defense. See George, 85 F.3d at 1438 (affirming district court's denial of defendant's motion for psychological evaluation since defendant was " `lucid,' " " `articulate' " and " `intelligen[t]' "); Morgano, 39 F.3d at 1374 (affirming district court's denial of defendant's motion for competency hearing in case where, in defense counsel's judgment, defendant "had been helpful and more cooperative than the average criminal defendant in assisting in preparation for trial").

We will next consider whether the district court had reasonable cause, at the July 26 pretrial hearing, to believe that Leggett did not have a rational and factual understanding of the hearing and of the pending trial.*fn5 Leggett points to portions of the hearing's transcript in which he rants about his mental impairments as evidence that he could not grasp the nature and consequences of the proceedings. At several points, Leggett mentioned that he has "brain damage" and suffers from "schizophrenia."*fn6 Without even discussing the self-serving nature of these comments, what precious little probative value they had was undercut by Leggett's own admission that his impairments did not affect his comprehension of legal concepts, such as waiver:

Thus, Leggett's argument is betrayed by his own articulation of an axiom generally observed by courts: i.e., " `[i]t does not follow that because a person is mentally ill [that person] is not competent to stand trial.' " Davis, 93 F.3d at 1290 (quoting Newfield v. United States, 565 F.2d 203, 206 (2d Cir. 1977)); see also Nichols, 56 F.3d at 412 ("It is well-established that some degree of mental illness cannot be equated with incompetence to stand trial.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Williams, 998 F.2d at 266 (observing that certain mental disabilities, such as "minor neurosis or slight retardation," may not render a defendant incompetent to stand trial). If the mental illness does not "deprive the defendant of the ability . . . to understand the proceedings . . . rationally as well as factually," Nichols, 56 F.3d at 412 (citation omitted), then the illness is irrelevant for the purposes of determining competency.

Although a trial court may consider a defendant's history of mental illness, it must "properly focus[ ] its inquiry [on the defendant's] mental state at the time of the [proceedings]." Morgano, 39 F.2d at 1374 (citation omitted). That is, the defendant must not only suffer from a mental impairment but must also be "presently" unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings. 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a). Nothing that Leggett said or did during the July 26 hearing suggested that he lacked the requisite understanding. A self-proclamation of mental illness hardly qualifies as proof of incompetency, especially when coupled with a textbook recitation of the necessary elements of a legal waiver. Courts have considered behavior far more extreme than Leggett's rants to be insufficient to warrant a sua sponte competency hearing under section 4241.

The facts in Lebron strongly mirror those of the present case. In Lebron, the defendant, like Leggett, had a lengthy history of psychiatric disorders, and was diagnosed as a possible schizophrenic. 76 F.3d at 30. At a change-of-plea hearing, the defendant threw a pitcher of water at several case investigators. Id. at 31. Neither side moved for a

competency hearing and, pursuant to a plea agreement, the defendant was sentenced. Id. On appeal, the defendant argued that the district court should have ordered a competency hearing sua sponte due to his "irrational and outrageous behavior in the courtroom." Id. at 32. In affirming the district court's judgment of sentence and rejecting the defendant's argument, the court of appeals for the First Circuit expounded, "Such behavior may be uncontrolled, manipulative, or even theatrical. It is not determinative of competency. Agitated or violent courtroom antics alone do not mandate a finding by the trial court of reasonable cause." Id. (citing United States v. Marshall, 458 F.2d 446, 450 (2d Cir. 1972)); see also Nichols, 56 F.3d at 413 (affirming district court's finding that defendant's unusual behavior -- i.e., getting down "on all fours" and putting his head to the floor -- was " `all calculated fakery' ").

Clearly, Leggett's declarations of mental illness were no more generative of reasonable cause than was the defendant's sudden paroxysm in Lebron. Just as we do not want to encourage defendants to fabricate symptoms of mental disorders (e.g., violent acts in court) to raise doubts about their competency, we also do not want to require " `district courts to order competency hearings sua sponte in every case where a defendant has some history of psychiatric treatment and, even vaguely, mentions the problem.' " Lebron, 76 F.3d at 33 (quoting Hernandez-Hernandez v. United States, 904 F.2d 758, 760 (1st Cir. 1990)). Leggett merely mentioned that he had been diagnosed in the past as having psychiatric problems. Such statements, standing alone, did not give the district court reason to believe that Leggett did not grasp the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him.

Based on this reasoning, we conclude that the district court did not have reasonable cause to believe that Leggett (1) was incapable of consulting with an attorney and assisting in his defense or (2) did not understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him.*fn7 B. Right To Testify

We now turn to the issue of whether Leggett was denied his right to testify at the trial. We exercise plenary review over claims of constitutional violations, such as the denial of the right to testify. United States v. Pennycooke, 65 F.3d 9, 10 (3d Cir. 1995).

The Supreme Court has held that the right to "testify on one's own behalf at a criminal trial" is grounded in three provisions of the Constitution.*fn8 Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44, 51 (1987); see also United States v. Van De Walker, 141 F.3d 1451, 1452 n.1 (11th Cir. 1998) (acknowledging that right to testify is constitutional), cert. denied, No. 98-5615, 1998 WL 480721 (U.S. Oct. 5, 1998); Brown v. Artuz, 124 F.3d 73, 76 (2d Cir. 1997) (same), cert. denied, 118 S. Ct. 1077 (1998); Ortega v. O'Leary, 843 F.2d 258, 261 (7th Cir. 1988) (same). First, the "Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that no one shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law include[s] a right to be heard and to offer testimony." Rock, 483 U.S. at 51; see also United States ex rel. Wilcox v. Johnson, 555 F.2d 115, 118 (3d Cir. 1977) (right to testify "emanate[s] from the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment") (citation omitted). Second, the right to testify also derives from the Compulsory Process Clause of the Sixth Amendment, "which grants a defendant the right to call `witnesses in his favor.' " Rock, 483 U.S. at 52 (quoting Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14, 17-19 (1967)). At times, "the most ...

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