Tenth Circuit Court Affirms District Court Denial of a Petition for Habeas Relief of Incompetent Petitioner Based on the Standard Laid Out by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)
In Ryder v. Warrior, 810 F.3d 724 (10th Cir. 2016), an Oklahoma man found guilty of two murders and sentenced to death filed a federal habeas petition, arguing that he was not competent to stand trial or to waive his right to present mitigating evidence at trial. He had untreated mental illness, which the Tenth Circuit Court acknowledged. Nonetheless, the court held that, under the narrow review permitted by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, it had to affirm the denial of habeas relief.
Facts of the Case
On April 8, 1999, James Chandler Ryder killed an elderly woman, Daisy Hallum, and her son, Sam Hallum, in a dispute over Mr. Ryder's belongings. Mr. Ryder had been collecting supplies with the intention of moving to the Yukon Territory, Canada, before January 1, 2000; the day he believed that the apocalypse would occur. Mr. Ryder believed that the Yukon would be the only place that he could survive this event. His ongoing dispute with the Hallums culminated with Mr. Ryder's beating Ms. Hallum to death and then shooting and killing her son.
The facts pertaining to the murders and the arrest of Mr. Ryder were essentially undisputed. Mr. Ryder was convicted of two counts of first degree murder and sentenced to death for the murder of Ms. Hallum. Before the trial, a favorable plea agreement had been rejected by Mr. Ryder who had stated that he had preferred death to a life sentence. After his conviction in 2000, but before sentencing, his defense attorney raised questions about a competency evaluation that had been completed before the trial finding Mr. Ryder incompetent to assist his attorney. The defense had decided not to raise this question before the trial, based on the belief that defense's interaction with the defendant did not create a “good faith doubt” as to his competency. The trial court held a hearing during which Mr. Ryder waived his right to present mitigating evidence. The trail judge ruled, after an extensive hearing, that Mr. Ryder was competent, and knowingly and voluntarily had waived his right to present mitigation at the sentencing phase.
Mr. Ryder, with the assistance of a new attorney, appealed his conviction, arguing that his previous counsel had failed to notify the court of competency issues before the trial and sentencing phase and failed to present adequate mitigating evidence. The case was remanded to the trial court so that a retrospective competency hearing could be completed. Dr. Dean Montgomery, who completed the initial evaluation, was called to discuss the findings of two prior competency evaluations that he had conducted in 2000 and 2002. He testified that Mr. Ryder's competency was questionable and noted his hyperreligiosity and apocalyptic delusions. The jury ultimately found that Mr. Ryder had been competent to stand trial.
An application for postconviction relief with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court were both denied. In 2005, Mr. Ryder filed a writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. He requested equitable tolling and abeyance based on his incompetency and relied on the report of Dr. Raphael Morris. Dr. Morris gave Mr. Ryder a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and offered the opinion that he was not competent and had not been competent at the time of his trial. Mr. Ryder's counsel requested a stay of his habeas proceedings “until he could be restored to competency.” Two years after this stay was granted, a second motion for equitable tolling and abeyance was filed, noting that “even the most basic communication [with Mr. Ryder] was next to impossible” (Ryder, p 734).
The filing led the district court to order a hearing to determine Mr. Ryder's competency. Dr. Lee Ann Preston-Baecht examined Mr. Ryder in 2008 and again in 2009. In 2008, Dr. Preston-Baecht was denied access to the historical records by the magistrate “in an effort to ensure an unbiased evaluation” (Ryder, p 734). She described Mr. Ryder as being religiously preoccupied, irritable, and tangential, but noted that he did not appear to “express any obviously delusional ideation” (Ryder, p 734). As a result of her limited access to Mr. Ryder's historical documentation, a definitive diagnosis was not provided, though she noted a “likely undiagnosed mental health condition” (Ryder, p 734). She opined that Mr. Ryder was competent to assist in his habeas proceedings.
Dr. Preston-Baecht was provided the historical documentation for her evaluation in 2009, at which time she observed that Mr. Ryder was “incoherent, tangential, and delusional.” His “significant deterioration” led Dr. Preston-Baecht to diagnose a psychotic disorder, likely paranoid schizophrenia, and opine that he was incompetent.
Based on the reports of Dr. Morris and Dr. Preston-Baecht, the court accepted a stipulation to Mr. Ryder's incompetence for his habeas proceedings. During an evidentiary hearing to review these findings, Dr. Morris stated his opinion that Mr. Ryder had been incompetent “well before his habeas proceedings commenced” (Ryder, p 735). Dr. Preston-Baecht testified regarding her opinion that Mr. Ryder had been incompetent since at least 2009, before her second evaluation.
The court found that Mr. Ryder had been getting progressively worse as a result of paranoid schizophrenia. The court also found that he had failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he was incompetent before October 2005 when the statute of limitations on his habeas petition ran. The court then found that he became legally incompetent after the 2008 evaluation. Citing the AEDPA limitations of habeas claims “to the record that was before the state” (Ryder, p 737) and his competence at the time when the statute of limitations expired, the district court held that equitable tolling was not required.
An appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was granted relating to three questions: whether the district court erred in denying a competency-based stay of his habeas proceedings; whether Mr. Ryder was incompetent to stand trial and whether the procedures used in Oklahoma violated due process and Sixth Amendment rights; and whether defense counsel was ineffective in failing to fully investigate Mr. Ryder's mental illness as it related to his defense.
Ruling and Reasoning
The court first took up the matter of competency-based stays. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Ryan v. Gonzales., 133 S. Ct. 696 (2013), noted that no statutory right exists for a petitioner to be competent during habeas proceedings. The Tenth Circuit Court also described the applicable elements of the AEDPA, specifically noting its limitation of habeas claims to a review of the record before the state court. Having referenced the ruling in Gonzales and the applicable standard of the AEDPA, the court affirmed the ruling of the district court, noting that the denial of a competency-based stay did not constitute abuse of discretion.
The court then addressed the merits of Mr. Ryder's habeas claims. These included ineffective assistance of counsel relating to inadequate presentation of mental health status. The court again referenced the standards outlined by the AEDPA. By this standard, a relief from a state court's adjudication would result only from a decision that is “contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law,” or, “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts” (Ryder, p 738). The court ultimately ruled that Mr. Ryder's defense counsel was not ineffective and affirmed the district court's denial of his habeas relief.
In response to Mr. Ryder's claim of ineffective counsel in allowing him to waive his right to present mitigating evidence, the Tenth Circuit Court affirmed the finding of the district court. The court reasoned that Mr. Ryder had been found competent at the time of the waiver and the court, having heard directly from Mr. Ryder regarding his willingness to waive this right, found him to be capable of knowingly and voluntarily waiving his right to present mitigating evidence. Citing Wallace v. Ward, 191 F.3d 1235 (10th Cir. 1999) the court noted, “failure to present mitigating evidence is not per se ineffective assistance of counsel” (Ryder, p 749) again stressing the discretion of the trial court.
In their conclusion, the Tenth Circuit Court noted the “tragic reality in this case” that “the condition responsible for Mr. Ryder's unwillingness to present mitigating evidence could have been the very evidence that would have persuaded the jury not to impose the death penalty” (Ryder, p 749). Observing that Mr. Ryder's mental condition at the time of his waiver of his mitigation case had not yet deteriorated to the point that it would render him incompetent, the court's ruling was affirmed and “compelling mitigating evidence” was never heard by the jury (Ryder, p 749). Even the court seemed troubled by its inability to escape the “narrowness of review permitted under AEDPA” (Ryder, p 749).
In Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975), the Supreme Court ruled that during criminal proceedings, a court must reconsider competency whenever the circumstances warrant. When viewed through the narrow scope of the AEDPA, Mr. Ryder's case, along with that of Mr. Gonzales before him, illustrates that, during habeas proceedings, a petitioner's competency is of little consequence. With a psychological evaluation completed two weeks before trial opining that Mr. Ryder was incompetent, it seems that the low bar established in Drope would have been met. The fact that a separate evaluation completed 10 years later drew the same conclusion begs the question of how Mr. Ryder's mental illness could be so relevant to his case while being so irrelevant to its outcome.
Disclosures of financial or other potential conflicts of interest: None.
- © 2016 American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law