Tennessee Execution Halted for Competency Hearing, Again

by Kent Scheidegger*

    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 or Adobe Acrobat
Tennessee Supreme Court dissent in WordPerfect

U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal
CJLF Brief in Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal

* Vice-Chairman, e-communications, Federalist Society Criminal Law and Procedure Practice Group; Legal Director, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation


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