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Defendant’s Fitness For Trial: Court Of Appeals Held That It Is Within The Sound Discretion Of The Trial Court To Determine Whether Defendant Is Fit For Trial


appeals convictions trial court is within the sound discretion when determining defendants fitness for trial

People v. Phillips

16 NY3d 510

New York Court of Appeals

Decided on: March 29, 2011

It Is Within The Sound Discretion Of The Trial Court To Determine A Defendant’s Fitness For Trial

Summary: Defendant was arrested for stabbing his wife and was ordered to undergo an examination pursuant to CPL 730.30 (1). At his initial examination, he was found unfit for trial. After a five-month stay at Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, Defendant’s treatment team recommended that he was fit for trial and should be reevaluated. Dr. Kunz, the Clinical Director at Kirby determined that Defendant was fit for trial. Defendant suffered from a series of strokes that resulted in a permanent brain injury that affected his language and speech skills. On behalf of Defendant, Dr. Carpuso, a licensed board certified psychologist testified that he had conducted several neurological examinations and concluded that the Defendant’s ability to understand legal concepts and assist his attorney were in question. Defendant testified during the competency hearing and was able to articulate that he understood the roles of a Judge, Prosecutor, and Defense Attorney.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court issued a 55-page decision finding Defendant fit for trial. He proceeded to trial and the jury convicted him on all counts. Defendant moved to set aside the verdict. The Appellate Division affirmed holding that there was no basis to overturn the finding that Defendant was fit for trial based on the thorough competency hearing and the trial court’s resolution of the conflicting expert testimony. The Court of Appeals held that a finding of trial competency is within the sound discretion of the trial court and involves a legal and not a medical determination. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s order.

See Also: Knowing Possession: Court Of Appeals Says That Exercise Of Dominion And Control Equals Knowing Possession

Issue: Whether the trial court committed an abuse of discretion when it found Defendant fit for trial after Defendant had suffered from a series of strokes and whether the Defendant had sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him.

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when they determined Defendant was fit for trial. In determining whether a Defendant is fit for trial the court must determine whether he or she has sufficient present ability to consult with his or her lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he or she has rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him or her.

CPL 730.60(2) provides that, if following a competency hearing, the court is satisfied that the Defendant is not an incapacitated person, the criminal action against him must proceed. An incapacitated person is a Defendant who, as result of mental disease or defect, lacks capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his own defense. CPL 730.10(1) The Court of Appeals also held that the Defendant’s responses during the course of the trial indicated comprehension and perception in the proceedings.

Facts: Defendant stabbed his wife in the lobby of his apartment and was arrested. After being indicted, Defendant was ordered to undergo an examination pursuant to CPL 730.30 (1). Prior to these criminal incidents, over an 11-year period that commenced in the late 1990’s Defendant had suffered a serious of strokes that affected his ability to communicate. At his initial examination, Defendant was found unfit for trial and was remanded to the custody of the Commissioner of Mental Health, and committed to Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center.

     At Kirby, it was found that the Defendant suffered from a series of strokes which resulted in a permanent brain injury that affected his language and speech skills as evidence by MRIs indicating a permanent lesion in the left hemisphere of the Defendant’s brain. After 5 months, Defendant’s treatment team recommended that he was fit for trial and should be reevaluated. Dr. Hicks, the Associate Clinical Director at Kirby, as well as Dr. Kunz the Clinical Director at Kirby, determined that Defendant was fit for trial. Defendant was returned to the custody of the New York City Commissioner of Correction at Rikers Island. Defendant argued the findings of trial competency pursuant to CPL 730.60(2).

Dr. Capruso, a licensed psychologist for the Defendant, testified that he has conducted several neurological examinations and concluded that Defendant suffered from motor speck skill deficits and comprehension issues that called into question whether or not Defendant had the ability to understand legal concepts and assist his attorney. For example, while Defendant understood the terms “yellow” and “circle” individually, he had a difficulty when questioned about the “yellow circle”. Defendant testified at the competency hearing and when asked about the legal concepts such as the purpose of a trial or pleadings, Defendant responded that he knows what is being said but it is hard. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Supreme Court issued a 55-page decision finding Defendant fit for trial.

The court credited the People’s experts, finding that Defendant’s experts performed tests in the abstract that had no bearing on the legal competency needed for trial. The Court concluded that the Defendant’s responses were appropriate, susceptible of understanding and rational.

      At trial, a jury convicted Defendant on all charges. They concluded that Defendant’s condition did not inhibit his ability to communicate with counsel and present a defense as his conduct. A Defense counsel’s observations and representations regarding his or her own client’s fitness for trial is not dispositive, but merely a factor to be considered by the trial court. The trial court found that the Defendant’s responses during the course of the trial indicated comprehension and perception in the proceedings. The Appellate Division affirmed and the Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal. The Court of Appeals held, when crediting expert testimony in a CPL article 730 hearing, it is the role of the trial court to consider factors such as the qualifications of the expert witnesses. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it found that Defendant was fit for trial. A finding of trial competency is within the sound discretion of the trial court and involves a legal and not a medical determination People v. Mendez, 1 NY3d 15, 20 2003. The trial court has the responsibility of assessing and weighing the competing evidence presented on the issue of a Defendant’s fitness for trial. This involved the extensive medical conclusions presented as well as the representations of defense counsel regarding his or her client’s fitness for trial. The manner in which the Defendant interacts with the court, communicates with defense counsel, or physically reacts to a question or piece of testimony cannot adequately be captured by the trial Judge.

      The Court of Appeals held that the trial court had the opportunity to observe Defendant’s behavior and evaluated the testimony of the psychiatrists. The Judge personally interacted with the Defendant on several occasions, including plea discussions, in which the Defendant evinced a particularized understanding of the nature of the proceedings and what was unfolding. Specifically, the court stated that it had observed and interacted with Defendant during the sixth-month competency hearing and noted conduct and responses that evinced perception and comprehension of the nature of the proceedings. In addition, during the one-month trial, the court noted that Defendant actively consulted with counsel, reacted appropriately to testimony and evidence, and engaged in colloquy with the court that demonstrated an understanding of the nature of the proceedings.

Defendant also argues that the trial court disregarded defense counsel’s representations that Defendant’s condition impaired his power to communicate with counsel and undermined his ability to intelligently assist in his own defense. The Court of Appeals held that a defense counsel’s representation regarding his or her client’s fitness for trial is not dispositive, but merely a factor to be considered by the trial court. A defense counsel’s observations and representations, without more, do not stand and should not serve as an automatic substitute for the court’s statutory discretion.

      The Court of Appeals also found that during the course of trial, the trial court afforded Defendant ample opportunity to consult with counsel and prepare for his defense. When crediting expert testimony in a CPL article 730 hearing, it is the role of the trial court to consider factors such as the qualifications of the expert witness. The Court of Appeals held, given the extensive record evidence in this case, the Court of Appeals found no abuse of discretion and no basis to disturb Defendant’s judgment of conviction. The Court of Appeals confirmed the order of the Appellate Division.


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