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Delaware Supreme Court: Where Defendant Competent to Plead ‘Guilty but Mentally Ill,’ He May Revoke Plea Before It Is Accepted

by Anthony Accurso

The Supreme Court of the State of Delaware held that when a defendant has been declared competent to plead guilty he retains the right to revoke his plea of “guilty but mentally ill” before the court accepts it.

Martin Taylor was found with knife wounds on his body after he was named a person of interest in the killing of Whitney White. Taylor was charged with her murder and possession of a deadly weapon. A psychological evaluation revealed that Taylor had a low IQ and suffered from schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), PTSD with dissociative symptoms of depersonalization, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

Because Taylor failed to consistently take his medications, he was likely under the influence of his mental illnesses when the crime occurred.

Taylor’s counsel sought a “guilty but mentally ill” plea under 11 Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 408(a). Taylor’s counsel said Taylor was competent to knowingly and willingly plead, and the court provisionally accepted his plea pending a hearing on his mental illnesses. Taylor then sought, through letters to counsel and the court, to withdraw his plea and voiced a willingness to seek a self-defense claim at trial. His lawyer refused Taylor’s repeated requests to withdraw his plea, and since he was represented by counsel, the court refused to consider Taylor’s pro se requests to withdraw his plea prior to the second hearing.

At his second hearing, the court accepted Taylor’s plea over his objections and ultimately sentenced him to 45 years in prison.

Taylor appealed claiming, among other things, that he should have been allowed to revoke his plea. The Delaware Supreme Court began its analysis with Cooke v. State, 977 A.2d 803 (Del. 2009), in which the Court explained: “The attorney controls the day-to-day conduct of the defense, meaning they decide if and when to object, which witness, if any, to call, and what defenses to develop. But, certain decisions, regarding the exercise or waiver of basic trial and appellate rights are so personal to the defendant that they cannot be made for the defendant by a surrogate.”

The decision to withdraw a guilty but mentally ill plea is among the personal rights that only Taylor can make because doing so implicates his “autonomy interest in his plea decision,” according to the Court.

The reason stated by Taylor’s counsel and the lower court for proceeding with the plea over Taylor’s objection was that counsel believed Taylor’s fixation on the self-defense claim arose out of his mental illnesses. Under Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960), in order to be found competent to stand trial, “the court must be satisfied that the defendant (1) has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him and (2) has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of understanding.”

The Court found that if Taylor’s counsel did not believe Taylor met this standard, counsel should seek a competency hearing on remand. However, since Taylor’s competency was not found to be insufficient before, the lower court should have allowed him to withdraw his plea before it was accepted by the court.

Accordingly, the Court held that Taylor’s guilty but mentally ill plea was not knowingly and willingly entered. It vacated the judgement of the lower court with instructions to allow Taylor to withdraw his plea. See: Taylor v. State, 2019 Del. LEXIS 332 (2019). 

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