Drope v. Missouri

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SUMMARY: Prior to trial in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis, Missouri, on an indictment charging the defendant and others with raping the defendant’s wife, the defendant, who was tried separately, filed a motion for a continuance for psychiatric examination and treatment, attaching a psychiatrist’s report which noted irrational acts of the defendant and concluded that he needed psychiatric treatment. The trial court denied the motion, and on the first day of the trial, the defendant’s wife testified as a prosecution witness, stating, inter alia, that she had hesitated about pressing the prosecution until the defendant had tried to choke her to death a few days before the trial. The defendant, who was on bail, failed to appear on the second day of the trial, having shot himself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, but the trial judge directed defense counsel to proceed in the absence of the defendant, who was hospitalized, and denied a motion for a mistrial. Thereafter, the defendant was convicted and the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial, holding that the defendant’s absence from the trial was due to his own voluntary act. After the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the conviction (462 SW2d 677), the defendant filed post-conviction proceedings in the trial court, seeking to vacate the conviction on the grounds that his constitutional rights had been violated by the failure to order a psychiatric examination prior to trial and by conducting the trial to its conclusion in his absence. The trial court denied relief, and the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed (498 SW2d 838).
On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded. In an opinion by Burger, Ch.J., expressing the unanimous view of the court, it was held that (1) the defendant’s due process right to a fair trial was violated by the trial court’s failure to suspend the trial pending a psychiatric examination to determine the defendant’s competence to stand trial, since the wife’s testimony, the psychiatrist’s report, and the defendant’s attempted suicide were sufficient indicia of incompetency to require such examination, (2) in view of the trial court’s failure to inquire into the defendant’s mental competency, there was no basis for determining whether the defendant had effectively waived his right to be present at his trial, assuming that such right could be waived, and (3) the defendant’s due process rights could not be adequately protected by merely remanding for a psychiatric examination aimed at establishing whether the defendant was in fact competent at the time of the trial approximately 6 1/2 years earlier, the state being free to retry the defendant if he is competent at the time of such trial.

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