Thursday, December 15, 2005

Just in time for the holidays . . .

People v Hendrie, __ AD3d __ [3d Dept 2005] [available here.]

Nothing puts you in the holiday spirit quite like the following fact pattern from a recent Third Department decision:

On the evening in question, defendant went to the residence of his former girlfriend, Helen LaPorte, ostensibly to deliver a Christmas gift for the LaPorte children. Upon arrival, however, defendant withdrew a sawed-off shotgun from the Christmas package, forced his way into the residence and thereafter shot and killed [his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend].

(People v Hendrie, __ AD3d __.)

Well, I guess the holidays can be pretty stressful. Beyond the festive facts, the Court in Hendrie held that the mildly retarded defendant with an IQ of 55 was nevertheless competent to knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waive his Miranda rights. From the decision:

Defendant's contention is that, as a result of his being mildly mentally retarded, he was incapable of fully comprehending his constitutional rights to remain silent and to the assistance of counsel. In support of this contention, defendant presented the testimony of a psychologist who . . .concluded that the defendant's IQ test score of 55 placed him at the low end of the mild mental retardation range. This expert witness further testified, as relevant hereto, that defendant lacked the capacity to understand the concepts embodied in the Miranda warnings given to him by the police.

Subnormal intelligence, in and of itself, does not require suppression of statements where it is established that a defendant had the ability to understand the basic concepts of the right to remain silent, the right to the assistance of counsel and the fact that any statement could be used against him or her. In our view, the record lacks any indicia that defendant failed to sufficiently comprehend the warnings . . . [t]he prosecution witnesses established that defendant was composed and relaxed and responded to questions in a normal and appropriate manner, at no time exhibiting any uncertainty or confusion.

(Hendrie, __ AD3d at __ [emphasis added].)

This is a troubling decision. The Third Department recognized in the decision that it was the People's burden to establish the defendant understood his rights, but the Court then treats the "lack of indicia" in the record that defendant did not understand the rights as sufficient to establish that he must have understood them. This is circular, and allows the People to establish understanding by negative inference. Further, it is hard to see how the defendant being "composed and relaxed" gives any inference of competence to understand the Miranda warnings. And how an "absence of indicia" and calm demeanor can somehow overcome an expert psychologist's opinion that the defendant was not able (by reason of mental retardation) to understand the warnings is beyond me.