Estelle v. Smith

(Expert Testimony & DFP, Federal Case, lack of admissibility of pre-trial examination information at sentencing phase)

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No. 79-1127
451 U.S. 454; 101 S. Ct. 1866; 68 L. Ed. 2d 359; 1981 U.S.
October 8, 1980, Argued
May 18, 1981, Decided


DISPOSITION: 602 F.2d 694, affirmed.
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DECISION: Admission at penalty phase of capital murder trial of testimony by psychiatrist who conducted court-ordered pretrial competency examination, held violative of defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

SUMMARY: An individual was indicted in Texas for murder, and the state announced its intention to seek the death penalty. The state trial court ordered that the defendant undergo a psychiatric examination to determine his competency to stand trial, and after the psychiatrist concluded that he was competent, the defendant was tried by a jury and convicted. State law then required a separate penalty proceeding at which the jury had to assess the defendant’s future dangerousness, one of three questions on which the state had the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt before the death sentence could be imposed. At the defendant’s sentencing hearing, the state called as a witness the psychiatrist who had conducted the pretrial psychiatric examination, and after a defense motion to exclude the testimony on the ground that the psychiatrist’s name was not on the state’s list of witnesses was denied, the psychiatrist testified that, among other things, the defendant was “going to go ahead and commit other similar or same criminal acts if given the opportunity to do so.” The jury answered the three requisite questions in the affirmative, and the mandatory death penalty was imposed. The defendant’s conviction and death sentence were upheld on appeal (540 SW2d 693, certiorari denied 51 L Ed 2d 601). After unsuccessfully seeking a writ of habeas corpus in the state court, the defendant petitioned for such relief in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas pursuant to 28 USCS 2254. The District Court vacated the defendant’s death sentence because it found constitutional error in the admission of the psychiatrist’s testimony at the penalty phase, the court concluding that the death penalty had been imposed on the defendant in violation of his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and freedom from compelled self-incrimination, his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel, and his Eighth Amendment right to present complete evidence of mitigating circumstances (445 F Supp 647), and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed (602 F2d 694).

On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court affirmed. In an opinion by Burger, Ch. J., joined by Brennan, White, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., and joined in pertinent part by Marshall, J., it was held that (1) the admission of the psychiatrist’s testimony violated the defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination, since the defendant was not advised before the pretrial examination that he had a right to remain silent and that any statement he made could be used against him at the sentencing proceeding, the defendant’s statements to the psychiatrist when faced while in custody with a court-ordered psychiatric examination not being given freely and voluntarily without any compelling influence so that they could be used at the penalty phase only if the defendant had been apprised of his rights and had knowingly decided to waive them, and (2) the admission of the psychiatrist’s testimony violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel, since defense counsel were not notified in advance that the psychiatric examination would encompass the issue of their client’s future dangerousness and the defendant was denied the assistance of his attorney in making the significant decision of whether to submit to the examination and to what end the psychiatrist’s findings could be employed, the Sixth Amendment right attaching when the doctor examined the defendant in jail and that interview proving to be a “critical stage” of the aggregate proceedings against the defendant.

Brennan, J., joined the court’s opinion, but stated his adherence to his position that the death penalty is in all circumstances unconstitutional.

Marshall, J., concurring in part, joined in all of the court’s opinion except that part suggesting that the death penalty could ever be constitutionally imposed, and stated his adherence to his consistent view that the death penalty is under all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Stewart, J., joined by Powell, J., concurred in the judgment, expressing the view that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments made impermissible the introduction of the psychiatrist’s testimony against the defendant at any stage of his trial, and thus the other issues discussed by the court need not have been reached.

Rehnquist, J., concurring in the judgment, expressed the view that the defendant’s counsel should have been notified prior to the psychiatrist’s examination of the defendant, that he would not go on to consider the Fifth Amendment issues, and that he was not convinced that any Fifth Amendment rights were implicated by the psychiatrist’s examination of the defendant and, particularly since it was not necessary to decide this issue, he would not extend the warning requirements of the right to remain silent to cover psychiatric examinations such as the one involved in the case.

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