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United States v. Guess

July 1, 2009

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JOSEPH MICHAEL GUESS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., J.

FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

I. BACKGROUND

The Defendant is charged with the one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in violation of Title 18 U.S.C. § 1349, and three counts of wire fraud in violation of Title 18 U.S.C. § 1343. The indictment alleges that the offenses occurred from 2003 through March 2007.

On September 23, 2008, the Defendant filed a motion for a Competency Hearing. This request was based on the contention that the Defendant is presently unable to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding because of the effects of a stroke suffered by the Defendant in January of 2007.*fn1 On April 3, 2009, the Court held a Hearing to address the issues raised in the Defendant's Motion. It is helpful at the outset to make clear what is and what is not in dispute.

There is no dispute that the Defendant's cognition and speech have been affected, to a certain degree, by his stroke. Clinical interviews and a battery of tests were conducted by Neuropsychologists Dr. Marc S. Walter, Ph.D., the Defendant's expert, as well as Dr. Michael Schwabenbauer, Ph.D., who was retained by the Government. The purpose of the interviews and testing was to assess the Defendant's present ability to adequately consult with his lawyer with a rational degree of understanding. The test results generated by each expert were in many respects quite similar. The experts disagreed, however, as to their meaning relative to the core issue of the Defendant's competency. In addition, the experts drew different conclusions relative to competency based on the clinical interviews each conducted with the Defendant.

Organizationally, I will first summarize the controlling case law or legal standards that will be applied in passing upon the Defendant's competency. Thereafter, I will provide a summary of the material facts which were established, to my satisfaction, at the Hearing. Finally, I will set forth the reasons for my conclusion that the Defendant is competent to stand trial.

II. DISCUSSION -THE LAW

"Fundamental to our adversary system of justice, and perhaps especially of criminal justice, is the prohibition against subjecting to trial a person whose mental condition is such that he lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense." United States v. Renfroe, 825 F.2d 763, 765 (1975). Clearly, the conviction of a legally incompetent defendant and the failure to provide adequate procedures to determine competence violate a defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial. Id. at 765-66.

The mere fact that a defendant suffers from a mental illness does not mean that the defendant is thereby incompetent to stand trial. See United States v. Leggett, 162 F.3d 237, 244 (3d Cir. 1998)(citing cases). Rather, "[i]n Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960), the Supreme Court defined the test for competence to stand trial as whether the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding - and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." Renfroe, 825 F.2d at 766. Congress has since codified this standard in the comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, P.L. 98-473, 18 U.S.C. Section 4241, which provides in part, as follows:

(d) Determination and disposition.-If, after [a competency] hearing, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense, the court shall commit the defendant to the custody of the Attorney General [for hospitalization at a suitable facility]. ...

18 U.S.C. § 4241.

When evaluating a defendant's competency, a district court must consider a number of factors, including "evidence of a defendant's irrational behavior, his demeanor at trial, and any prior medical opinion on competence to stand trial." Leggett, 162 F.3d at 242 (quoting Drope, 420 U.S. at 180). Other factors that may be relevant to the determination "include an attorney's representation about his client's competency ... and a showing of narcotics abuse." Renfroe, 825 F.2d at 767 (internal citation omitted). "All of these factors must inform the statutory requirement that a defendant be able to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him and be able to assist properly in his defense." Id. Determining a defendant's competency is "often a difficult [question] in which a wide range of manifestations and subtle nuances are implicated." Drope, 420 U.S. at 180.

"The test must be whether the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding-and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." Dusky, 362 U.S. 402. "The mere fact that someone suffers from a mental disease or defect is not in and of itself dispositive:

It does not follow that because a person is mentally ill [that person] is not competent to stand trial. United States v. Davis, 93 F.3d 1286, 1290 (6th Cir. 1996) (quoting Newfield v. United States, 565 F.2d 203, 206 (2d Cir. 1977)); see also United States v. Nichols, 56 F.3d 403, 412, (3d Cir. 1988) ("It is well established that some degree of mental illness cannot be equated with incompetence to stand trial.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) ... 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.

United States v. Kosow, 2007 WL 3033774 at *11 (W.D.Pa. 2007).

As the court observed in United States v. Hogan, 986 F.2d 1364, 1368:

Even perfectly competent defendants often do not fully comprehend the intricacies of some of the defensive theories offered by their lawyers. That level of comprehension is not a requirement of competency.

THE TESTIMONY

Dr. Walter concluded, based on his review of the medical records, that the Defendant sustained an acute infarction of the middle brain, which impacted on motor function and speech. (Tr. p. 8). He administered the Aphasia Screening Test, which involved reading, spelling and simple math, command following and copying figures. The Defendant tested in the average range on that test. (Tr. p. 11). On the Controlled Oral Word Association Test, (COWAT Test), which involved generating as many words as possible from the letters of the alphabet in 60 seconds, he scored in the impaired range. The Digital Symbol Coding Test was administered, which involved copying symbols below numbers, and a finding of borderline impaired was made. Significant impairment was found on two of the visual aptitude tests. (Tr. p. 13). On the Wechsler Memory Scale Revised Test, Dr. Walter concluded that his immediate and delayed recall were average. This test involved reading the Defendant a story and then asking him about the content. (Tr. p. 14). The Hopkins Verbal Learning Test reflected impairment. Dr. Walter concluded that his verbal memory was average. (Tr. p. 16). He found him to be low average on the visual memory test involving simple and complex designs. As to his abilities relative to visual and verbal memory, Dr. Walter responded to the Court's question as follows:

THE COURT: Let me ask the question this way. I'm trying to understand qualitatively the difference between the drop off between his visual performance and his memory performance.

You said in your view he did more poorly on the visual recall, yet I'm having some difficulty understanding, it sounded to me like they both were ...


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