Criminal Law Blog

Crying Wolf? Finding of Competency and Denial of Motion to Withdraw Affirmed in Light of Defendant’s Perceived Malingering and Bad Faith.

Christian D. Taylor v. United States (decided March 31, 2016)

Players: Chief Judge Washington, Associate Judge Fisher, and Senior Judge Nebeker. Opinion by Judge Nebeker. Nicholas B. Lewis, Anand V. Ramana, and Christopher D. McEachran for Mr. Taylor. Trial Judge: Thomas J. Motley.

Facts: Mr. Taylor was convicted on two counts of first-degree premeditated murder; four counts of felony murder, second-degree burglary while armed, and robbery while armed; and seven counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence (“PFCV”) for entering a store, demanding money at gunpoint, and shooting the cashier and his father, who co-owned the store.

Mr. Taylor refused to participate in his initial 24-hour competency screening. After a 45-day inpatient evaluation, the trial court found Mr. Taylor competent to stand trial. Mr. Taylor later complained of intermittent inability to speak and hear. Examiners at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital determined that he was malingering, and the court again found him competent.

Geoffrey Harris was appointed to represent Mr. Taylor with another attorney who later withdrew due to Mr. Taylor’s complaints about the representation and professed religious bias. Mr. Harris moved to withdraw, after Mr. Taylor filed a bar complaint against him. Having found that Mr. Taylor fienged his hearing/speech loss to avoid trial, the trial court similarly denied the motion to withdraw in light of perceived bad faith on Mr. Taylor’s part but appointed another attorney to act as co-counsel at trial. Mr. Harris twice renewed his motion to withdraw, including once, in light of Mr. Taylor’s alleged threats to his children. The trial court denied these motions, finding that they were also motivated by Mr. Taylor’s desire to avoid trial. The court declined to recuse itself from hearing these motions or presiding over the trial.

Issue 1: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in deeming Mr. Taylor competent to stand trial?

Holding 1: No. Mr. Taylor had no prior history of mental illness. He was deemed competent by two mental health professionals at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Lay testimony and the trial judge’s in-court observations further supported its finding. Mr. Taylor put forward no evidence to overcome the presumption that he was competent.

Issue 2: Whether there was an actual conflict of interest between Mr. Taylor and Mr. Harris that adversely affected Mr. Harris’ performance?

Holding 2: No. The court appropriately inquired into the potential conflict. Its remedy of appointing co-counsel for trial was sufficient to prevent any prejudice, as co-counsel took a lead role. Mr. Taylor has not complained about co-counsel’s performance and fails to identify any prejudice suffered as a result of Mr. Harris’ continued representation. Based on the record presented, the trial court correctly found that Mr. Taylor was just trying to avoid trial.

Issue 3: Whether the trial court erred in declining to recuse itself from presiding over the trial after presiding over Mr. Harris’ motion to withdraw?

Holding 3: No. The trial judge was in the best position to hear the motion to withdraw, having seen the relationship between Mr. Taylor and his attorneys, past and present. Efficiency may sometimes counsel preemptive recusal from a potentially prejudicial motion, but it is not necessary in all cases. The trial court was aware of its duty to self-recuse, if it became prejudiced. The record does not contradict its finding that there was no prejudice.

Issue 4: Whether the government presented sufficient evidence that the murders were premeditated and deliberate?

Holding 4: The issue is moot. Only one murder conviction per victim may stand. Because the sentence will be the same no matter which are vacated, the Court vacates the first-degree premeditated murder convictions and upholds only the two felony murder convictions predicated on robbery. (Mr. Taylor’s convictions for robbery merge with these felony murder convictions. Since the felony murder predicated on second-degree burglary is vacated, second-degree burglary does not merge.)

Issue 5: Whether Mr. Taylor’s PFCV convictions merge into a single conviction?

Holding 5: No. Mr. Taylor manifested a “fresh impulse” when he committed second-degree burglary, armed robbery, and then two first-degree murder.

Of note: The Court’s holding with respect to Mr. Harris’ motion to withdraw is best understood in the context of Mr. Taylor’s conduct throughout the case: “We agree with the trial court that appellant was malingering and that his attempt to manufacture a conflict of interest with his attorney was merely another effort to manipulate the court and avoid trial.” Attorneys facing threats to life or livelihood that may affect their representation should continue to bring those matters to the presiding judge’s attention, in ways that protect their client’s interests.  WC

Read full opinion here.