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North Carolina Supreme Court Reverses Embezzlement Convictions for Failure to Hold Competency Hearing After Mid-Trial Suicide Attempt, Involuntary Commitment

Carolyn D. “Bonnie” Sides was present in the courtroom during her first three days of trial. Then she attempted suicide by ingesting 60 one-milligram Xanax tablets. She was found unresponsive and taken to a hospital.

A psychiatric evaluation conducted that night determined that she was “experiencing worsening depression and increased thoughts of self-harm.” An immediate involuntary commitment was sought because she was “mentally ill and dangerous to self or others or mentally ill and in need of treatment in order to prevent further disability or deterioration that would predictably result in dangerousness.” The psychiatrist noted that she was “not stable and for her safety will need further examination.”

A magistrate signed a commitment order for an initial 24-hour period. Later that day, Sides underwent another psychiatric evaluation. Medical personnel determined she was still suicidal and was “not safe for treatment in the community and require[d] inpatient stabilization,” and commitment continued.

That morning, the trial court, informed of the suicide attempt, told the attorneys it would attempt to “salvage” the day “without committing an error that would be reversible.” Defense counsel cautioned that more information was needed before deciding whether to proceed without Sides present and offered to try to obtain more information on the multiplicity of psychiatric medical conditions that she and her family said she was suffering from.

The prosecutor drafted an order for production of Sides’ medical records for the judge to sign but limited it to the day of and the day after her involuntary commitment. Defense counsel suggested that the order be expanded, but the judge only added “any following days.” As a result, when proceedings resumed the following Monday, only a very limited medical record was available.

The trial court noted it had received 89 pages of the recent medical records, which showed Sides continued to require immediate psychiatric stabilization and was still suicidal. There was also a “history of mood disorder” that was being treated with Haldol, Vistaril, Trazadone, and Zoloft. After asking defense counsel a few questions, the trial court decided to proceed with the trial without the defendant being present, concluding that she had voluntarily, by her own actions, made herself absent.

Defense counsel objected that there was no evidence to determine whether Sides had voluntarily absented herself, and the court did not even investigate whether she had primarily intended to end her life, not be absent from trial, and was involuntarily in a medical facility even if she would choose to be in the courtroom if given a choice. The trial court overruled the objection and proceeded with the trial without Sides being present.

Sides was convicted on all charges and unsuccessfully appealed. Aided by Assistant Appellate Defender Wyatt Orsbon, Sides appealed to the state Supreme Court. Disability Rights North Carolina attorneys Susan H. Pollitt, Lisa Grafstein, and Luke Woolard filed an amicus curaie brief for their organization, the North Carolina Psychiatric Association, and the North Carolina Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The North Carolina Supreme Court held that the trial court’s skipping over the issue of competency and simply assuming the suicide attempt was a voluntary act “put the cart before the horse” as an incompetent defendant cannot voluntarily waive her right to be present at her trial.

The Court noted that, pursuant to Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975), a court must investigate the issue of competency when faced with information that raises sufficient doubt about the defendant’s competency to stand trial. Under those circumstances, the court has a constitutional duty to conduct a competency hearing on its own initiative as set forth in State v. Young, 231 S.E.2d 577 (N.C. 1977). That is what should have been done in this case, the Court stated.

The Court also ruled that the Court of Appeals erred when it made the determination that Sides voluntarily absented herself “without first deciding whether there was substantial evidence before the trial court as to her lack of capacity to make such a voluntary decision.”

The Court clarified that a suicide attempt alone does not mandate a competency hearing, but the evidence the trial court received regarding Sides’ current mental illness, her history of mood disorder, her current assessment of being at high risk on the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale, and her long-term treatment with multiple psychiatric medications were evidence that called Sides’ competency into question. The trial court recognized this, but cut the hearing short by assuming the suicide attempt was a voluntary act. “Simply put, the trial court started down the road of addressing defendant’s competency but abandoned the journey midway,” according to the Court. 

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Related legal case

State v. Sides

 

 

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