Tuesday, November 27, 2018
California Supreme Court:
Murder Conviction Reversed Judge Should Have Put Trial on Hold When Lawyer Said Her Client Was Incoherent, His Speech Amounting to ‘Word Salad’
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday reversed the convictions of a man for murder and attempted murder because the trial judge failed to suspend the trial and order a competency proceeding after his lawyer advised that he had stopped taking his medication and was unable to communicate with her coherently.
The unanimous opinion was written by Justice Leondra R. Kruger. It allows prosecutors to retry defendant Domingo Rodas—who had been convicted by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury of the 2009 murder by stabbing of a homeless man in Hollywood and the attempted murder of two others—provided he is determined competent to stand trial.
Rodas was initially declared incompetent in the case in 2012, after his incoherent babbling in open court convinced then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg (now a private judge) that he was unable to appreciate what was transpiring.
After Rodas was put on medication as part of his mental health treatment, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo found him competent, and the case went to trial before Judge Robert Perry.
Defendant’s ‘Word Salad’
At an in-camera hearing, Los Angeles Deputy Public Defender Carole L. Telfer told Perry of her doubts as to the defendant’s competence, noting that her client had admitted to her that he had stopped taking his medication.
She described Rodas’s discourses as “word salad,” ramblings including “a lot of polysyllabic words that go around in a circle and don’t really make sense.”
The lawyer recounted that he indicated to her his intention to testify at trial, despite earlier agreeing with her that such a move would be unwise. When she asked him what he planned to say, he responded with a note which read in part:
“Playing record Hollywood department Westside Honor Ranch L.A. County. Two police officers visiting. Four records. Call to testify in court. Statement you are the one that murdered a series of persons in a tunnel.”
Rodas became angry when Telfer mentioned his previous name change (Rodas had been born Dudley Kenneth Brown), and started “talking about—something about forgery,” she said, but she didn’t understand who he thought had committed that crime.
Perry asked the defendant if he understood that a jury had been sworn in and that trial was set to begin. Rodas answered in the affirmative.
“You’ve been—can you tell me what you’ve been charged with?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” replied Rodas, “I understood yesterday the proceedings were going over and that I was being charged with three counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder.”
Perry, commenting on his dialogue with the defendant, indicated he was “impressed with his clarity of speech and apparent clarity of reasoning in addressing the court.”
Addressing Telfer, he added:
“He understands the charges. He says he’s willing to help you.”
This District’s Opinion
Div. Three of the Court of Appeal for this district affirmed the convictions in an unpublished opinion in 2016. Explaining the ruling, then-Justice Richard D. Aldrich (now retired) first noted that Olmedo’s finding of competence had not been error, having been supported by a medical report and not being objected to at the time.
“Although the 2013 medical report about Rodas…connected taking medication to maintaining competence, Rodas’s characterization of the report as ‘conditioning’ competence on maintaining his medication regimen is an overstatement….The only medical report about Rodas is the one from 2013. There was no current medical report from 2014 describing the effect, if any, of Rodas’s failure to take his medication. Rodas thus asks us to assign a significance to his failure to take medication that is not in the record.”
Kruger disagreed. She wrote:
“[T]he psychiatric reports and letters in the record established two critical facts. First, defendant’s schizophrenia causes him to suffer paranoid ideation and severe difficulties in organizing his thoughts and speech, periodically rendering him incompetent to stand trial. Second, while consistent administration of antipsychotic and mood-stabilizing medication can control these symptoms, maintenance of competence depends on continued medication.”
“It was against this backdrop that defense counsel informed the trial court in March 2014 that she had formed a new doubt about defendant’s competence. At that time, the trial court learned that defendant had stopped taking his medication and his condition had severely deteriorated. Defendant was now focused on a paranoid theory that the videotapes the prosecution was using against him were ‘assimilations’ and that identifications of him as Doudley Brown (his original name, under which he had been previously confined in state hospitals) were somehow ‘forge[d].’ Beyond that, his communications to his attorney were incoherent, consisting of a ‘word salad’ like that reported during his earlier bouts of mental incompetence. Defendant had told counsel he now wanted to testify, contrary to their earlier agreement, but counsel did not understand what defendant was saying to her and hence did not know ‘what’s going to come out of his mouth’ if he took the stand. Taken as a whole, this information constituted substantial evidence of mental incompetence.”
The jurist added:
“The facts made known to the court raised a reasonable doubt as to whether defendant was able to communicate rationally with his attorney and thus “to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner.”
Because of that reasonable doubt, she explained, Rodas was entitled to a new competency hearing, notwithstanding any earlier findings.
The case is People v. Rodas, 2018 S.O.S. 5493.
Copyright 2018, Metropolitan News Company