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United States v. Tatum

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

January 4, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ANTONIO OSCAR TATUM

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MYRON H. THOMPSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case is before the court on the question whether defendant Antonio Oscar Tatum is mentally competent to stand trial. The government's and Tatum's experts disagreed about whether Tatum is competent. Tatum's expert reported in May 2018 that he was incompetent, but offered no opinion about his competency as of December 21, 2018, when the court held the competency hearing. By contrast, a forensic psychologist for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) opined both in a September 2018 report and at the December 21 hearing that Tatum is competent to proceed. For the reasons outlined below, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that Tatum is competent to stand trial.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In March 2018, Tatum was indicted on one count of theft of a firearm from a federal firearms licensee, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(u), and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The government alleges that he stole four rifles from a gun shop in Montgomery, Alabama.

         On May 8, 2018, Tatum filed a motion for a competency hearing, which attached a forensic psychological evaluation by Dr. David C. Ghostley addressing Tatum's competency to stand trial. See Ghostley Report (doc. no. 36-2). As detailed below, Dr. Ghostley found that Tatum was not currently competent to stand trial and would require an estimated three months to “stabiliz[e].” Id. at 5. The government subsequently filed a motion for a mental-health evaluation and treatment, in which it requested that the court enter an order finding Tatum incompetent, and remove him to BOP custody for restoration, and to determine whether there was a substantial probability that he would attain capacity. See Government Motion (doc. no. 45) at 1-2. The magistrate judge granted the government's motion to the extent that he committed Tatum to BOP custody “for a psychiatric and/or psychological examination to determine his competency” as well as whether he was insane at the time of the alleged offense. Commitment Order (doc. no. 48). On September 7, 2018, the BOP filed a forensic evaluation by Dr. Jessica Micono concluding that Tatum was currently competent to stand trial. See BOP Report (doc. no. 55) at 19.

         On December 21, 2018, this court held a competency hearing, where it heard testimony from both Dr. Ghostley and Dr. Micono.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A defendant is not fit to stand trial if he is “presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.” 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d). Courts apply a two-part test to determine competency. See Bundy v. Dugger, 850 F.2d 1402, 1408 (11th Cir. 1988). First the district court determines whether “the defendant suffer[s] from a clinically recognized disorder[].” Id. If he does, the court then determines whether “that disorder render[s] the defendant incompetent under” the test for incompetency established by the Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960). Id. The Dusky test asks whether the defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding--and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” 362 U.S. at 402.

         The law is unsettled on which party bears the burden of proof as to competency. See United States v. Merriweather, 921 F.Supp.2d 1265, 1290 (N.D. Ala. 2013) (Proctor, J.) (stating that § 4241 “is silent on this point, noting only that the court must find by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant is incompetent to stand trial”). Nonetheless, this “court need not resolve” this open question, “for the outcome here would be the same regardless”: Tatum is competent to proceed. United States v. Brooks, 2010 WL 5169074, at *2 (M.D. Ala. Dec. 14, 2010) (Thompson, J.).

         A. Clinically Recognized Disorder

         The experts provided conflicting diagnoses as to whether Tatum suffers from a “clinically recognized disorder, ” the first prong of the two-part competency assessment. Bundy, 850 F.2d at 1408. Dr. Ghostley, Tatum's expert, reported that Tatum “presented with significant signs and symptoms of mental illness” and noted a “diagnostic impression” of schizophrenia, paranoid type, and unspecified mood disorder. Ghostley Report (doc. no. 36-2) at 4. Dr. Ghostley also reported several prior mental-health diagnoses. Specifically, when admitted to Crossbridge Behavioral Health in 2014, Tatum was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and anxiety; in February 2018, he was again admitted to Crossbridge and diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder, longstanding depression, and impulse control personality disorder with paranoid delusions; and, in March 2018, a clinician at Montgomery Mental Health diagnosed him with schizophrenia, paranoid type. See Id. at 3.

         On the other hand, Dr. Micono, the BOP evaluator, gave Tatum a DSM-5 diagnosis of “malingering, ” meaning that he was intentionally producing false or grossly exaggerated psychological symptoms. BOP Report (doc. no. 55) at 14. She further found that it was not appropriate to diagnose Tatum with a “psychotic disorder, such as Schizophrenia.” Id. at 17. While Dr. Micono found some evidence for consideration of a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, it was not enough evidence to confirm or exclude the diagnosis. Id. at 15-16. Even if Tatum were diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, Dr. Micono reported, the diagnosis would not impact his competency to proceed. Id. at 16.

         Ultimately, the court need not resolve whether Tatum suffers from a “clinically recognized disorder, ” because the court finds that he is competent under the second prong of the competency test, see Bundy, 850 F.2d at 1408, that is, the standard for competency set forth in Dusky, 362 U.S. at 402.

         B. The D ...


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