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Still crazy after all these years

Back in 2000, I got an email with the subject heading, "Shawn Miller is an evil man."  This was pretty much before spam, and before spam filters, and I didn't give it much thought.  Turns out it was part of a mass email to all students and alumni of Case Western Reserve University (I'm a grad of their law school) from some guy named Biswaneth Halder, claiming that Miller had hacked into his web site and destroyed it.  Halder wound up filing a suit against CWRU, which was dismissed.  On April 29, 2003, the 8th District affirmed the dismissal.

Ten days later, Halder, wearing a flak jacket and helmet and carrying a machine pistol and handgun, smashed his way into the Weatherhead School of Management at CWRU.  He shot and killed the first person he saw, wounded several others, and was finally arrested after a nationally-televised three-hour siege.

Halder was a 62-year-old Indian with an extremely checkered employment history who'd created a a web site for the stated purpose of helping people of Indian descent to start their own businesses, and with the rather lofty ambition of eventually solving mankind's problems by narrowing the debt between rich and poor.  Good luck with that.  The county prosecutor milked the case for all it was worth, getting an indictment of Halder on 338 counts of aggravated murder and assorted other crimes, all with firearm, terrorism, mass murder, and various other specifications.  Halder was of course convicted and, to no one's surprise, the jury rejected the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without parole.

Last week, the 8th District affirmed the conviction in a 2-1 decision, with the lines drawn primarily along the question of competency.  Two experts had testified that Halder was incompetent, but one, Dr. Barbara Bergman, had testified that he was, and the trial court went along with that.  So did the court of appeals, determining that Bergman's testimony was sufficient "competent, credible evidence" to support a finding of competency, especially given that Bergman's examination of Halder was much more recent than that of the other two experts.

But the dissent does a very good job of honing in on the two defects in the majority's analysis.  First, Bergman had testified that while Halder did have a severe personality disorder, he didn't have a "major mental disorder or mental illness," which, according to her, was the threshold requirement for a finding of incompetency.  Unfortunately, according to the statute, RC 2945.371(G)(4), that's the threshold requirement for a finding of insanity; incompetency, under RC 2945.37(G), requires only that the defendant suffer from a mental condition.  Bergman conceded on cross-examination that Halder met that requirement.

In addition to not recognizing that Bergman was using the wrong medical standard for incompetency, the majority arguably failed to apply the proper legal standard.  Competency requires that the defendant understand the nature of the proceedings against him and be able to assist in his defense.  There was no question that Halder understood what was going on, but his ability to assist in his defense was substantially handicapped by the fact that, to put it in medical terms, he was a 48-carat nut job.  He was absolutely convinced that Shawn Miller, CWRU, the prosecutors, and his defense team were all part of a giant conspiracy against him, and that all he had to do was take the stand, tell the jury what had "really" happened, and he'd be acquitted.  As a result, he refused to talk to his lawyers about the case.  As the Supreme Court explained in one of the key cases on competency, Dusky v. US,

It is not enough for the [judge] to find that "the defendant is oriented to time and place and has some recollection of events," but that the "test must be whether he 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."

This isn't to suggest that if the proper medical and legal standards had been applied to Halder, he would have been found incompetent; there's probably a decent argument that could be made either way.  But not applying the proper standards doesn't do much to vindicate the argument that he was competent.

One more thing:  both the majority and the dissent did a super job of reviewing the case law on this subject.  If you've got a case where competency can be raised, reading both opinions here will go a long way toward giving you a full understanding of the issue.


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