Friday, April 22, 2016
State Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence, Rejects Defense’s Incompetence Claim
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The judge trying a capital case was not required to suspend the trial and have the defendant evaluated when a defense expert testified she had evaluated the defendant 18 months earlier and concluded he was incompetent, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The court affirmed the first degree murder conviction and sentence of Anthony Townsel, who has spent the last 25 years on Death Row.
Townsel was convicted of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and her brother-in-law by shooting them to death. The prosecutor said Townsel killed Martha Diaz, 20, and Mauricio Martinez Jr., 23 in 1989 because Diaz had left him after a fight and moved in with her sister and Martinez, and in order to prevent her from testifying against him in a potential domestic violence case.
The defense focused its appellate argument on the April 1991 testimony of psychologist Dr. Lea Christensen that she had evaluated Townsel in late October 1989 and found him then to be intellectually disabled and incompetent to stand trial. The defendant’s trial counsel did not request competency proceedings based on the testimony.
Townsel had been evaluated by two court-appointed experts two months after Christensen’s evaluation and found competent. The doctors said he was malingering.
Christensen testified, however, that what may appear to be malingering behavior to an evaluator without expertise in intellectual disability, or one who has not tested a defendant for intellectual disability, may actually be evidence of intellectual disability. Only by appointing a qualified expert, the defense argued, could the court have determined whether the defendant suffered from such a disability and whether it rendered him unable to assist counsel in his defense.
But Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, writing for the high court, noted that Christensen also acknowledged that her opinion was what the justice called “an outlier,” in that she found Townsel’s IQ to be well below what other evaluators—including other defense experts—found and that her conclusion may have been impacted by the circumstances of the evaluation.
Werdegar noted that the defendant “was at the time in a head harness, medicated, tired, and in pain while recovering from injury” when Christensen evaluated him.
The court did throw out Townsel’s conviction on another charge, attempting to dissuade a witness, along with a special-circumstance finding of witness killing. The justices found that the judge had erroneously failed to explain to the jury that its instruction that jurors could find that the defendant lacked the mental state required for first degree murder, based on his intellectual disability, applied to the witness-tampering charge and the special-circumstance allegation as well.
The court nonetheless upheld the death sentence on the basis of the other special-circumstance finding, that of multiple murder.
The case is People v. Townsel, 16 S.O.S. 1983.
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