Tuesday, July 10, 2012
State Supreme Court Orders New Hearing in Death Penalty Case
Justices Say Defendant Should Not Have Been Allowed to Represent Himself in Competency Proceedings
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A defendant sentenced to death for robbing and killing an elderly Bakersfield man should not have been allowed to represent himself in a competency hearing, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices unanimously ordered a new hearing, if “still feasible,” to determine whether Christopher Charles Lightsey received a “procedurally adequate and substantively acceptable” competency hearing, and if so, whether he was competent to assist counsel at the time of his 1995 trial.
If the original competency hearing was adequate and the defendant competent, the court said, his conviction and death sentence will stand. If he is found not to have been competent or not to have received an adequate hearing, or if it is not feasible to hold a retrospective competency hearing, the case will have to be retried, Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for the court.
Lightsey was sentenced to death by Kern Superior Court Judge John I. Kelly for the July 1993 murder of William George Compton, 76. Police said the victim, who was suffering from colon cancer, was killed by a robber who took most of his collection of antique and custom-made firearms as well as two video cameras.
He was stabbed more than 40 times, and the coroner said he died about 15 minutes after the first blow was struck. His body was found by friends who went to check on him after learning he had not shown up for his radiation treatment that day.
Compton kept inventory of his guns in a notebook, and police entered the serial numbers in a database, which led to the arrest of a man who had pawned a rifle. That arrest eventually led to the arrest of Lightsey.
The defense claimed that Lightsey could not have committed the murder because he was in court on an unrelated criminal case that day. The prosecution alleged that the murder was committed after Lightsey left court.
Lightsey had difficult relationships with his attorneys, several of whom were allowed to withdraw. His third attorney asked for a competency hearing in March 1994, and the judge suspended proceedings pending a determination of competency under Penal Code Secs. 1368 and 1369.
A hearing was held, and Lightsey was found competent. He then filed a motion to represent himself, and gave what Werdegar described as “a rambling statement criticizing his attorneys’ performance and accusing them of participating in a conspiracy against him.”
The judge chose to treat the matter as a renewal of the defendant’s previously denied Marsden motion for appointment of new counsel. After the motion was denied, defense counsel again raised the issue of competence to proceed, and noted that only one expert, rather than the statutorily required two, examined Lightsey during the earlier proceedings.
Client Called Delusional
The judge later granted the defendant’s request to represent himself, appointing advisory counsel. That lawyer, Ralph McKnight Jr., after meeting with Lightsey several times, advised the court that he believed the defendant was delusional, that Lightsey believed that all of the attorneys who had represented him had been colluding with the rest of the criminal justice system to see him executed, and that the defendant was incompetent and should not be allowed to represent himself.
The judge responded by again suspending proceedings under Sec. 1368. He appointed a psychiatrist, who concluded Lightsey was “unable to cooperate in a rational manner with counsel in presenting a defense,” while the defense-selected expert found him to be “manipulative” rather than delusional and to be “difficult to work with” from an attorney perspective but competent.
Following a hearing at which Lightsey represented himself, and his advisory counsel did not participate, the judge found the defendant competent. McKnight then asked to be relieved of his duties as advisory counsel, saying his relationship with the defendant had broken down, and the judge agreed.
Following another hearing, the judge appointed a new advisory counsel, who again raised issues as to Lightsey’s competence. At the hearing, Lightsey said he would not object to appointment of a lawyer from outside Kern County, and Kelly appointed William Dougherty, with the latest advisory counsel, R. James Gillis, as co-counsel.
The pair later raised the issue of competence during trial, but the judge said he was convinced Lightsey was competent, even if lacking in “mental discipline” and possessed of a bad attitude toward the proceeding.
‘Miscarriage of Justice’
Werdegar, however, said the case should not have gone to trial without a competency hearing at which Lightsey was represented by counsel. Allowing him to represent himself at that stage of the proceedings, the justice said, was “a reversible miscarriage of justice.”
Secs. 1368 and 1369, she wrote, plainly require that the defendant be represented by a lawyer throughout the proceedings to determine whether he is mentally competent to assist in his own defense, not merely, as the prosecution argued, during the initial argument over whether to suspend the trial.
Nor, Werdegar went on to say, is the error subject to mere harmlessness analysis.
The error, she said, was akin to depriving the defendant of counsel at trial, which would be structural error requiring reversal.
“Attempting to assess the effect of the absence of counsel on the trial court’s finding of competence is, in truth, no different than attempting to assess the effect on a jury’s final verdict of the absence of counsel during a trial on substantive charges: there is no reasoned manner in which to do so because the lack of true adversarial testing denied defendant the basic procedure by which his competence should have been determined,” the justice wrote.
The case is People v. Lightsey, 12 S.O.S. 3367.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company