Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, November 29, 2007


Page 1


Court: Defendant’s Statement to Group Therapist Not Confidential


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


A defendant’s murder confession to a jail psychiatrist was admissible where the statement was not entitled to confidentiality and was not coerced by the state, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

Upholding Donald Edward Beaty’s death sentence, the court agreed with U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton of the District of Arizona that the Fifth Amendment did not compel exclusion of Beaty’s statements to  Dr. George O’Connor. Beaty not could not rely on a group therapy plan to protect the confidentiality of his statement where the contract did not guarantee complete confidentialitym and the defendant waited to be alone with his psychiatrist after the conclusion of the therapy session before making the statement, the panel held.

Holding that any promise of confidentiality that existed was not sufficiently compelling to outweigh Beaty’s will against self-incrimination, the court also ruled that the statement was not coerced where it was made in response to remarks by another group therapy session participant who was not a state actor, the group was not designed to elicit incriminating remarks, and Beaty was under no compulsion by the state to participate in group therapy.

Beaty, of Tempe, was arrested on May 21, 1984 and charged with the murder and sexual assault of 13-year-old Christy Ann Fornoff.  He was incarcerated at the Maricopa County Jail, where O’Connor, a staff psychiatrist, performed an intake evaluation. 

Beaty was transferred to the Durango Psychiatric Unit on O’Connor’s recommendation, where inmates were encouraged to participate in therapy and staff worked to develop individual treatment plans which were treated as agreements by inmates to fulfill the plans’ terms. 

Experimental Group

Beaty voluntarily agreed to participate in an experimental coed group led by O’Connor that was intended to improve the relationship between male and female inmates.  During the first meeting, Beaty and other participants signed a contract providing that they understood that group communications were confidential and could not be discussed outside of the group.

 However, Beaty became agitated at the second meeting when another group participant began talking about his alleged crime.  When the session ended, Beaty waited in line for other members to finish speaking with O’Connor and then spoke to the doctor alone.

Beaty later testified that he told O’Connor that he was upset because he understood the group was not supposed to discuss participants’ crimes.  He said that he never told O’Connor anything about Fornoff.

In contrast, O’Connor testified that Beaty was extremely agitated, saying that he did not mean to kill Fornoff and using hand motions to indicate that he had only intended to muffle the girl’s mouth.  O’Connor said that he left immediately after the encounter, taking away the clear message that Beaty had committed the crime.

After the next meeting, Beaty quit the group, saying he again felt attacked, and he was returned to the Maricopa County Jail. 

O’Connor kept the encounter to himself, and Beaty’s case proceeded to trial.  However, the state’s case rested primarily on physical evidence tying Beaty to the crime, and the judge declared a mistrial after the jury deadlocked 10 to two in favor of guilt.

Doctor Talks

The statements became public knowledge after O’Connor mentioned them to a detention officer while at the courthouse to testify in an unrelated case. The trial judge then ordered O’Connor to testify at the retrial, which resulted in Beaty being convicted of first degree murder and sexual assault and sentenced to death.

Beaty ultimately filed a habeas corpus petition, and the district court rejected his claims.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part, but remanded for a determination whether Beaty’s statement was involuntary under the Fifth Amendment.

Bolton rebuffed Beaty’s claim that his confession was involuntary, concluding that the circumstances surrounding the confession made any assertion that the contract was an unqualified promise of complete confidentiality unreasonable.  The district judge also concluded that, even if a limited promise of confidentiality were present, such a promise did not cause Beaty to confess and did not overcome his will against self-incrimination.

Writing for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain agreed.  Rejecting Beaty’s contention that he reasonably relied upon a contractual promise of confidentiality when he discussed his case with O’Connor, O’Scannlain said that Beaty’s statement was voluntary and that he could not rely on the contract because it made no guarantee of complete confidentiality.

O’Scannlain said that the reasonableness of Beaty’s belief that his statement fell within the scope of the contract was diminished both by the fact that Beaty made the statement after a significant amount of time had lapsed after the conclusion of the group session, and because Beaty waited to be alone with O’Connor before making the statement.

Even if the contract could be viewed as a limited coercive promise by the state, O’Scannlain said, the promise was not sufficiently compelling or coercive to overcome Beaty’s will against self-incrimination because there was no overreaching police or state conduct; participation was not a prerequisite to eventual release; and Beaty admitted that it was his decision to remain and speak with O’Connor after the group finished.

He also concluded that the statement was voluntary because, to the extent that the statement was coerced, it was not the result of state action.  Instead, he said, the statement resulted from the conduct of another group member who was not a state actor, and that the group session had not been designed to elicit incriminating remarks. 

Noting further that Beaty was not forced to participate in the group, O’Scannlain finally pointed out that Beaty never told anyone of his plans to quit the group, and that Beaty transferred before ever missing a group meeting.  O’Scannlain said that both facts supported the district court’s conclusion that Beaty’s transfer was likely in preparation for his trial, and not punishment for quitting.

O’Scannlain was joined in his opinion by Judges Susan P. Graber and M. Margaret McKeown.

The case is Beaty v. Schriro, No. 05-99013.


Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company