Monday, October 8, 2012

Protecting Even The Most Despicable Of Defendants: Drope v. Missouri (1975)

In the US, we protect our criminal defendants. We assume even the most dastardly individuals are innocent unless proven guilty, and we make sure defendants are able to exercise all of their Constitutional Rights when defending themselves. Let me cite the case of Drope v. Missouri as an example:

In 1969, James Drope was indicted for rape. He was alleged to have forcibly raped his own wife, along with several of his acquaintances. His wife reported to the court that he and four of his friends raped her and subjected her to several other "indecencies." She reported she continued living with Mr. Drope after the rape so that her children would be taken care of, at the insistence of his psychiatrist. She also reported Mr. Drope attempted to kill her several days before his trial began.

Prior to trial, Mr. Drope's defense attorney entered a motion asking the court for a continuance so that he could receive a psychological evaluation and treatment. The motion contained a letter from a psychiatrist stating Mr. Drope did, in fact, need mental health treatment. The prosecution did not object to the motion. Nevertheless, the court denied the motion and set the case for trial.

Mr. Drope's wife testified for the prosecution, and she mentioned she was hesitant about wanting to bring charges against her husband until he attempted to kill her. She described significant, odd behavior on Mr. Drope's part. One behavior she described was Mr. Drope "roll[ing] down the stairs" if he received bad news or if something did not go his way.

On the second day of trial, Mr. Drope did not appear in court. He had shot himself in the stomach in a suicide attempt and was hospitalized. The defense asked the court to declare a mistrial. The court refused, and it ordered the defense to proceed with the trial without Mr. Drope's presence.

Needless to say, Mr. Drope was convicted. His defense team appealed the conviction, arguing he was deprived of his Due Process Rights (Fourteenth Amendment) because the court did not order a mental health evaluation and proceeded with his trial without his presence. An Appeals Court rejected the appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

In 1975, The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Appeals Court decision and remanded Mr. Drope's case to the trial court to allow for a retrial, assuming he was competent at the time of the retrial.

The Court held, "(1) the defendant's due process right to a fair trial was violated by the trial
court's failure to suspend the trial pending a psychiatric examination to determine the defendant's competence to stand trial, since the wife's testimony, the psychiatrist's report, and the defendant's attempted suicide were sufficient indicia of incompetency to require such examination, (2) in view of the trial court's failure to inquire into the defendant's mental competency, there was no basis for determining whether the defendant had effectively waived his right to be present at his trial, assuming that such right could be waived, and (3) the defendant's due process rights could not be adequately protected by merely remanding for a psychiatric examination aimed at establishing whether the defendant was in fact competent at the time of the trial approximately 6 1/2 years earlier, the state being free to retry the defendant if he is competent at the time of such trial."

The Court made it clear that individuals must be competent to stand trial at the time of the trial in order to them to adequately exercise their Constitutional Rights and to avoid violations of Due Process. It also made clear that if questions arise about an individual's competency, trial courts have an obligation to suspend proceedings until the person's competency or incompetency can be established. In most states now, merely asking for a competency evaluation is enough to kick off the competency evaluation process--it is not necessary for an attorney to present evidence to the court of an individual's incompetence to start the evaluation procedure.

I do not know what happened to Mr. Drope after the Supreme Court remanded his case back to the trial court. My guess is that he underwent a competency evaluation to determine if he was fit to be tried again, and if he wasn't, he probably received restoration to competency treatment services.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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