Court: Competency Hearing a Due Process Right

Derek Antonio Johnson was waiting in his cell for trial when he was beaten — by himself.

A guard said he was “head-butting” the ground, and slapping and punching himself at the same time. Bleeding from his eyebrow, his eye socket swollen and lacerated, Johnson did not make it to trial that day.

Johnson’s attorney said the man had a history of psychiatric problems, but the trial judge didn’t buy it. Johnson was just trying to work the system, the judge said.

No Competency Hearing

California’s Third District Court of Appeal said the judge erred. Johnson was not mentally competent to stand trial, the appeals court said, and it violated his due process rights not to hold a competency hearing.

When substantial evidence suggests a defendant might be competent, “due process dictates a full exploration of the defendant’s mental health to determine if, in fact, he or she is competent to stand trial,” the judges said.

In People v. Johnson, the evidence was substantial. Johnson engaged in multiple acts of self-mutilation, shouted to voices in his head, defecated in his pants, and was placed on suicide watch.

Despite Johnson’s strange behavior and his attorney’s request for a competency hearing, the judge proceeded without him. The jury convicted him in absentia.

Guilty of Mayhem

But even the crime Johnson committed was evidence of mental illness. He was found guilty of mayhem.

After a night of barhopping together, the court record says, Johnson and his girlfriend got into a fight. He jumped on her, and bit her repeatedly in the face.

With blood running from bites to her lips and eyelid, she escaped and went to the local emergency room. A doctor glued her eyebrow back together.

In reversing Johnson’s conviction, the appeals court said there was sufficient evidence of mayhem for any future prosecution.

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