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Sanders v. Forniss

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

May 31, 2018

WILLIAM ROBERT SANDERS, # 258188, Petitioner,
v.
LEON FORNISS, et al., Respondents.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Susan Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the court on a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 filed by Alabama inmate William Robert Sanders (“Sanders”). Doc. No. 1.[1] Sanders challenges his 2008 guilty plea conviction for solicitation to commit murder and his 20-year sentence entered by the Circuit Court of Montgomery County. He argues that he was not mentally competent to enter his guilty plea. For the reasons that follow, the undersigned recommends that Sanders's § 2254 petition be denied without an evidentiary hearing and that this case be dismissed with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Indictment and Arraignment

         In November 2005, a Montgomery County grand jury indicted Sanders on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, in violation of §§ 13A-4-1 & 13A-6-2, Ala. Code 1975, and solicitation to commit murder, in violation of §§ 13A-4-3 & 13A-6-2, Ala. Code 1975 (1975). See Doc. No. 15-1 at 21-24. The charges were related to Sanders's alleged scheme to hire Ossie Sanders and Bernetta Carter to kill David Hataway, Sanders's ex son-in-law. Id.; Doc. No. 21-2 at 2; Doc. No. 15-7 at 8-12. Sanders was arrested before the murder could be carried out. Doc. No. 21-2 at 2; Doc. No. 15-7 at 12.

         At his November 2005 arraignment, Sanders entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, after which the trial court ordered that Sanders undergo a psychological evaluation of his competency at the time of the offense and his competency to stand trial. Doc. No. 15-1 at 24; Doc. No. 15-16 at 32-35.

         B. Initial Psychological and Neurological Evaluations

         In February 2006, Dr. Glen King, a certified forensic examiner with Clinical Psychologists PC in Montgomery, evaluated Sanders at the jail where he was being held. Doc. No. 15-16 at 55-56. Dr. King filed a report with the trial court which diagnosed Sanders with dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease and indicated that Sanders, as a result, might have significant memory difficulties interfering with his ability to assist his counsel in his own defense. Id. Dr. King recommended that Sanders not be allowed to proceed with disposition of the charges against him until his intellectual functioning was further evaluated. Id. He also recommended that Sanders undergo evaluation to determine if he could regain competency. Doc. No. 25-1 at 4.

         Based on Dr. King's diagnosis and report, the trial court ordered a battery of neurological testing of Sanders, including a PET scan. Doc. No. 15-16 at 72-73. Results of the PET scan indicated that Sanders had “diminished metabolic activity throughout the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes and the cerebellum, consistent with fairly advanced Alzheimer's disease.” Id. at 73; see Doc. No. 15-16 at 65.

         C. First Competency Hearing and Trial Court's Orders

         On March 27, 2007, a brief hearing was held on Sanders's competency to stand trial.[2] Doc. No. 25-1 at 1-11. At that hearing, Dr. King reaffirmed his diagnosis that Sanders was suffering from dementia. Id. at 5. Dr. King stated that he believed Sanders's ability to participate in the legal proceedings against him was “spotty” and that Sanders “had some critical deficits in certain areas.” Id. at 6. He offered the opinion that Sanders was not competent to stand trial, although he could not say this with absolute certainty. Id. Accordingly, he recommended that Sanders undergo lengthy review and observation by the Alabama Department of Mental Health (“ADMH”). Id.

         Following the March 27, 2007 hearing, the trial court entered an order finding Sanders had a mental defect preventing him from assisting his attorneys in his own defense and was incompetent to proceed to trial at that time. Doc. No. 15-16 at 73. The court found there was need for further evaluation of Sanders to determine whether he might become competent “within a reasonable period of time.” Id. The court ordered that Sanders be evaluated by the ADMH at the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility in Tuscaloosa (“Taylor Hardin”), “to determine whether it is feasible and/or worthwhile to initiate training designed to increase defendant's knowledge of courtroom procedures and improve his ability to assist his attorney in his own defense.” Id. at 73-74.

         Sanders underwent evaluation at Taylor Hardin. On July 12, 2007, after reviewing initial mental and medical reports from Taylor Hardin, the trial court found that Sanders needed additional and closely monitored evaluation, treatment, and competency training. Doc. No. 15-16 at 79. Under Rule 11.3(b) of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure, [3]the trial court ordered that Sanders be committed to the ADMH “for a reasonable period of time necessary to conduct further evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist as to whether the defendant has sufficient present ability to assist in his own defense, by consulting with counsel, with a reasonable degree of rational understanding of the facts and the legal proceedings against the defendant and as to the defendant's mental state at the time of the alleged offense(s).” Id.

         D. Final Competency Hearing

         On January 22, 2008, a final hearing was held on Sanders's competency to stand trial. See Doc. No. 25-2 at 2-77. At the hearing, the trial court heard testimony (both live and by telephone) from several doctors who evaluated Sanders regarding his competency.

         Dr. Larry Epperson

         Dr. Larry Epperson, a neurologist presented by the defense, testified about his evaluation of Sanders in October 2006 (approximately fifteen months before the final competency hearing). That evaluation included a question-and-answer memory test (“the Mini-Mental State Examination”), blood work, and various brain scans. Id. at 4-15. Dr. Epperson stated that Sanders scored below average on the Mini-Mental State Examination, indicating Sanders had cognitive problems, but he acknowledged it was possible for someone to malinger on this test. Id. at 4 & 12-14. Dr. Epperson testified that Sanders's brain scans revealed physical conditions, including atrophy and atherosclerosis, consistent with “an Alzheimer's type of dementia.” Id. at 6-7. He stated that the results of such brain scans are objective and not susceptible to being faked. Id. at 7. Dr. Epperson testified that the cognitive problems stemming from dementia could worsen progressively over several years. Id. at 8-10. He stated such cognitive problems might vary from day to day, and individuals with dementia could experience fluctuations in their lucidity. Id. at 10-11. When asked his opinion on whether Sanders could assist his counsel in his defense and whether Sanders was competent to stand trial, Dr. Epperson answered that Sanders had “some serious cognitive problems” that would make it difficult for him to assist in his defense. Id. at 7-8. Dr. Epperson acknowledged he had not previously performed any evaluations of defendants' competency to stand trial. Id. at 14.

         Dr. Glen King

         Dr. Glen King also testified on behalf of the defense at the January 22, 2008 hearing. It was Dr. King's opinion that Sanders was not malingering during the memory tests administered to him by Dr. Epperson. Id. at 38-40. Dr. King stood by his original diagnosis that Sanders was suffering from dementia. Id. While he thought Sanders understood the charges against him and possessed a reasonable understanding of the roles of the participants in the criminal proceedings, Dr. King stated he remained concerned about Sanders's “memory issues” in terms of his ability to consult with his attorneys. Id. at 37- 38 & 41.

         Dr. Russ Bates

         Dr. Russ Bates, an internal medicine physician in charge of Sanders's care at the county jail after his arrest, testified on behalf of the State at the January 22, 2008 hearing. Dr. Bates stated that neither he nor the nursing staff at the jail saw Sanders exhibit any characteristics of Alzheimer's disease, including problems with short-term memory. Id. at 21-22 & 26. Dr. Bates testified that, while at the jail, Sanders was initially taking Aricept, an Alzheimer's medication prescribed for him by doctors at Taylor Hardin. Id. at 19-21. Dr. Bates stopped administering Aricept to Sanders. Id. at 21. Dr. Bates testified that Sanders told his wife during a jail visit that he had stopped receiving Aricept. Id. at 21. According to Dr. Bates, a person with Alzheimer's disease, especially advanced Alzheimer's disease, would typically have such a diminished short-term memory that he would not remember to tell someone his medication has been stopped. Id. Dr. Bates testified that the results of Sanders's brain scans did not sway his opinion regarding Sanders's mental faculties, because many people have organic brain abnormalities while still functioning normally. Id. at 22 & 26. It was Dr. Bates's opinion that Sanders did not have Alzheimer's disease. Id. at 23. Dr. Bates acknowledged that he conducted no formal verbal and memory testing of Sanders at the jail. Id. at 24-25.

         Dr. James F. Hooper

         Also testifying on behalf of the State at the January 22, 2008 hearing was Dr. James F. Hooper, medical director at Taylor Hardin and a board-certified forensic psychiatrist. Dr. Hooper testified regarding four separate examinations of Sanders conducted at Taylor Hardin during October and November 2007, including a detailed neurological exam conducted on November 8, 2007. The pertinent part of Dr. Hooper's testimony is quoted here at length:

The issue with this man has been raised largely based on scans and MRIs; however, they also did an EEG, which was normal.
. . . .
Well, the scans show you a picture. Okay. The MRI shows you a picture. If you took a picture of my leg now and compared it to my leg when I was 20, it would show atrophy. My leg is not as big and strong as it was when I was a young man. I can still walk, however, and the fact that my leg is smaller means probably I can't walk as far. But it still functions.
The EEG measures the global functioning of the brain, which was normal.
Everything that we did with Mr. Sanders was either inconsistent or grossly normal. When I went through the sub-types of Alzheimer's-because he came to us with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. He says he doesn't remember things. I mean, you know, it's sort of like Dr. King said. That's where you start is thinking, okay, what do we do to evaluate this.
He was already on Aricept. We didn't have a whole lot to do more to treat that, so we just wanted to clarify whether that was an accurate diagnosis or not. Mr. Sanders continued to exhibit no problems with short-term memory. His difficulties were primarily not being able to remember the things that had to do with the index crime and not being able to remember anything when he was formally tested. But in terms of activities in the program, remembering who the staff were, functioning within the hospital environment, he had no problems.
So I went through all of the criteria for the various types of Alzheimer's, and it's in my report. And I've got-I don't know that I can quote it off the top of my head. But, basically, for Alzheimer's dementia, you need some specific things, and we specifically tested for those things, and he didn't have any of them. So I said Alzheimer's is not the diagnosis.
For Lewy Body dementia, it's a rare type of dementia, and people are really, really disorganized and nonfunctional, and ...

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