The Federal District Court for the Middle District
of Tennessee has again stayed the execution of Robert Glen Coe,
who was scheduled for Tennessee's first execution in the modern
capital punishment era (i.e., since Gregg v. Georgia,
428 U.S. 153 (1976)). The purpose of the stay is to allow
the court to evaluate Coe's claim that he is not mentally competent
to be executed.
Coe has been on death row for 19 years for the
murder, rape, and kidnapping of Cary Ann Medlin, who was eight years
old. Nine of those years were occupied by a single proceeding:
consideration of Coe's initial habeas corpus petition in the same
court that has issued this stay.
Coe's mental competence claim has already been
considered and rejected by the state trial court, which heard testimony
from multiple experts on both sides, and by the state supreme court,
which wrote an extensive and careful opinion. See the links
at the bottom of this page.
The opinion discloses some disturbing, but all
too common, aspects of psychiatric testimony. First, some
experts opine directly on whether a person meets a particular legal,
not medical, standard, when they quite obviously do not understand
the standard. In Coe's case, a defense expert opined that
Coe was not competent to be executed, even though the expert also
testified that Coe was aware that he was going to be executed and
that the reason was his murder of the young girl. But that
minimal cognitive awareness is the standard of competency.
See Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 333 (1989).
The expert apparently thought that competency required some higher
level of philosophical appreciation, which it does not.
Second, some experts are prone to ascribe to
mental illness certain facts which have much simpler explanations.
Coe's expert thought it was symptomatic of schizophrenia that Coe
preferred to remain in his cell rather than exercise in the yard
with the other inmates. But Coe was in prison for the rape
and murder of a little girl; such inmates are frequently assaulted
and sometimes killed by other inmates. Given that fact of
prison life, his decision to stay in his cell is eminently rational.
So, why is this case in federal court?
Why has this long-overdue execution been postponed yet again?
The Constitution forbids execution of the mentally incompetent,
see Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 410 (1986),
but Coe has had his day in court, had his experts heard, and had
his case decided according to the correct legal standard.
Not only is the trier of fact entitled to believe one side's experts
over the other's, but in this case the trial court could have validly
found Coe competent on the testimony of his own experts.
In Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal,
523 U.S. 637 (1998), the Supreme Court held in a similar case that
a Ford claim raised after the first habeas case was completed
was not a "second or successive petition" for the purpose of Congress's
1994 restrictions on such petitions. It directed that the
district court proceed to the "merits" of the Ford claim.
But what are the "merits"? Is it determination of whether
the state proceeding provided the process due, or is it trial de
novo of the underlying competency question? It's hard
to say from the fractured opinion in Ford, and Martinez-Villareal
did not clarify the point. Stay tuned.
Tennessee Supreme Court opinion in WordPerfect
Tennessee Supreme Court dissent in WordPerfect
U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Stewart
Brief in Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal
* Vice-Chairman, e-communications,
Federalist Society Criminal Law and Procedure Practice Group;
Legal Director, Criminal
Justice Legal Foundation