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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Clarifies Proper Evidentiary Standard and Type of Evidence for Informal Competency Hearing

by Christopher Zoukis

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas reversed a trial court’s refusal to grant a criminal defendant a formal competency evaluation, finding that the trial court and court of appeals erred by improperly considering evidence and applying the incorrect evidentiary standard. Unfortunately for the potentially incompetent defendant, by the time the Court of Criminal Appeals got the case, she had already been convicted, and the only thing the court could do was order the trial court to consider the feasibility of conducting a “retrospective” formal competency trial.

Crystal Lammas Boyett was speeding when her car crashed into another vehicle occupied by three women. Two of the women died in the crash, and the third was seriously injured. The State charged Boyett with two counts of manslaughter. Boyett pleaded not guilty and proceeded to trial.

On the third day of trial, defense counsel filed a motion raising the issue of Boyett’s competency to stand trial. Defense counsel told the judge that he believed Boyett, who had been previously diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia, was having a schizophrenic episode. In support of this contention, defense counsel noted that Boyett seemed to be making “bizarre writings” in the notebook she kept during the proceedings, that a defense expert believed Boyett to be out of touch with reality, and that multiple people had observed Boyett talking aloud to herself and laughing. One of those people was another lawyer, who reported the bizarre behavior to defense counsel and said, “there [is] something wrong with your client.”

In response to the motion, the trial court convened an informal competency inquiry, outside the presence of the jury. Defense counsel called four witnesses, including his expert and the other lawyer. The trial court received evidence of Boyett’s previous diagnosis, the medications she had been prescribed in the past (Lithium, Geodon, and Valium), and her bizarre behavior. The State countered by arguing that the evidence demonstrated only that Boyett had “realized the hopelessness of her case” and no longer cared about the trial.

The trial court found insufficient evidence of incompetence and refused to order a formal competency hearing, which would have involved expert evaluation of Boyett. Boyett was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The court of appeals agreed with the trial court and affirmed. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed.

The Texas high court found two errors that required reversal. First, the court of appeals “considered facts and circumstances tending to show that [Boyett] was competent.” For instance, the appellate court found that Boyett’s previous ability to assist in her own defense militated against a finding of incompetence. This was erroneous because Texas law limits evidentiary considerations at the informal stage to those which support a finding of incompetency.

“[T]he court of appeals’s focus on [evidence of competency] was erroneous, given our explanation [in Turner v. State, 422 S.W.3d 676 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013)] that the proper inquiry at this stage is whether, ‘putting aside all competing indications of competency … there is some evidence, a quantity more than none or a scintilla, that rationally may lead to a conclusion of incompetency,’” wrote the Court.

Similarly, the court of appeals erred by misinterpreting the evidentiary burden at the informal stage. The lower court looked at the evidence to determine whether it established a “substantial possibility” that Boyett was incompetent to stand trial and found that it did not. However, the statute that governs informal competency determinations, Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 46B.004(c), only requires “some evidence”— which Turner noted to be “a quantity more than none or a scintilla.”

Correcting these errors and considering the evidence properly, the Court ruled that Boyett should have been granted a formal competency hearing.

“Disregarding [evidence of competency] and considering only the evidence of incompetency, we conclude that there was some evidence of incompetency, based on testimony that [Boyett] had a history of serious mental illness, was exhibiting behavior consistent with her prior episode of mental illness, was acting in a manner that suggested she was divorced from reality, and was unable to understand basic aspects of the trial evidence and proceedings,” the Court wrote.

“In this situation, the proper remedy is remand to the trial court for a retrospective competency determination,” the Court continued. “On remand, the trial court shall first determine whether it is presently feasible to conduct a retrospective competency trial. If a retrospective competency trial is feasible, the trial court shall conduct one.”

The Court’s ruling is, in all likelihood, a hollow victory for Boyett, who remains convicted and in prison. Absent the ability to travel backward in time, it is unclear how an expert could evaluate Boyett now and determine that she was incompetent then. See: Boyett v. State, 545 S.W.3d 556 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018). 

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