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Roberts v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

March 17, 2016

KARL D. ROBERTS, APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS, APPELLEE

Page 525

          APPEAL FROM THE POLK COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. NO. CR-1999-70. HONORABLE J.W. LOONEY, JUDGE.

         Jennifer Horan, Fed. Def., by: Scott W. Braden, Ass't Fed. Def., for appellant.

         Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Vada Berger, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

         RHONDA K. WOOD, Associate Justice. BRILL, C.J., and DANIELSON and GOODSON, JJ., dissent.

          OPINION

Page 526

          RHONDA K. WOOD, Associate Justice

         Karl Roberts appeals the circuit court's finding that he has the capacity to choose between life and death and to knowingly and intelligently waive his right to postconviction relief. He also asserts that mandatory review should be extended to postconviction proceedings in capital cases and that a rejection of his attempt to rescind his waiver violates the " solid footing" doctrine. We hold that the circuit court erred when it found that Roberts has the capacity to choose between life and death and could make a knowing and intelligent waiver; accordingly, we reverse and remand.

         I. Background

         In May 2000, Roberts was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the murder of his twelve-year-old niece. Following his conviction, Roberts filed a waiver of appeal and of postconviction review. A hearing was held on the waiver, and the circuit court found that Roberts had the capacity to knowingly and intelligently waive his appeal rights. This court conducted an automatic review pursuant to State v. Robbins, 339 Ark. 379, 5 S.W.3d 51 (1999), and affirmed Roberts's waiver of his right to appeal, as well as his conviction and sentence. Roberts v. State, 352 Ark. 489, 102 S.W.3d 482 (2003).

         In May 2003, the circuit court held a hearing pursuant to Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.5 (2015). At the hearing Roberts appeared pro se and again waived his right to seek postconviction relief. The circuit court concluded that he had the capacity and the competency to knowingly and intelligently waive his right to postconviction relief. This court reviewed the record of Roberts's Rule 37.5 waiver hearing and affirmed the circuit court's findings. See Roberts v. State, 354 Ark. 399, 123 S.W.3d 881 (2003).

         Then, in January 2004, the day of his scheduled execution, Roberts moved for a stay of execution in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, which was granted. In July 2004, Roberts filed a writ of habeas corpus with the federal district court, but in 2007, the federal district court granted Roberts's request to hold the federal habeas corpus petition in abeyance, directing Roberts to seek relief in the state courts regarding all unexhausted claims. The federal habeas petition is currently stayed for Roberts to be given an opportunity " to convince the state courts that he did not competently waive his right to appeal and seek state post-conviction relief" and " to seek relief in the state courts under Rule 37.5 regarding all unexhausted claims." See Roberts v. Norris, 526 F.Supp.2d 926 (E.D. Ark. 2007).

         Thereafter, Roberts filed an untimely Rule 37.5 petition and an amended postconviction petition, which the circuit court denied. In January 2012, Roberts filed a motion to reopen the proceedings and reinvest the circuit court with jurisdiction. Roberts v. State, 2013 Ark. 57, 426 S.W.3d 372. We granted Roberts's motion and held that a more recent competency evaluation of Roberts was required to adequately determine his competency to elect execution and waive postconviction remedies.

Page 527

Id. Roberts was subsequently evaluated, and the circuit court held a hearing to determine whether Roberts's waiver of his postconviction appeals was made knowingly and intelligently and with the capacity to choose between life and death. It concluded that Roberts was competent and had the capacity to waive his postconviction rights. Accordingly, the circuit court dismissed Roberts's petition for postconviction relief. Roberts now appeals the circuit court's decision regarding competency and capacity.

         II. Analysis

         Roberts asserts several bases on which we should reverse the circuit court. Roberts first contends that the circuit court failed to make " sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law sufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review." He alleges, in the alternative, that the circuit court's conclusion that he is competent to knowingly and intelligently waive all rights to postconviction relief and has the capacity to choose between life and death is clearly erroneous and that the circuit court substituted its opinion for that of the experts who testified at the postconviction hearing. Roberts also argues that this court should establish a mandatory postconviction proceeding and review for death-penalty defendants who waive their postconviction rights. Finally, he claims that this court should reverse the circuit court's acceptance of Roberts's waiver under the " solid footing" doctrine.

          We must determine preliminarily whether the circuit court issued sufficient findings to allow for meaningful appellate review. We conclude that it did. As he does on appeal, Roberts raised six points in his prehearing brief: (1) whether Roberts is incompetent to waive under Rees v. Peyton, 384 U.S. 312, 86 S.Ct. 1505, 16 L.Ed.2d 583 (1966); (2) whether Roberts's waiver is illness driven and thus involuntary; (3) whether Roberts is incompetent under Franz v. State, 296 Ark. 181, 754 S.W.2d 839 (1988); (4) whether Roberts's waiver is not " knowing" and " intelligent" ; (5) whether the waiver should be disallowed under the " solid footing" doctrine; and (6) whether the court should require mandatory postconviction review. However, the first four points all address the issue of whether Roberts was competent to waive his postconviction rights.

          When a petition for postconviction relief is denied following a hearing, Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.5(i) requires that the court " make specific written findings of fact with respect to each factual issue raised by the petition and specific written conclusions of law with respect to each legal issue raised by the petition." Absent such findings, there can be no meaningful appellate review because the court determines whether the findings are supported by a preponderance of the evidence. See Charland v. State, 2012 Ark. 246.

         Albeit concise, the circuit court's findings sufficiently specify the basis for its ruling. With regard to the first four issues raised in Roberts's brief, the circuit court's order denying postconviction relief states that it considered the testimony and reports of Dr. Mark Peacock and Dr. Daryl Fujii, Roberts's letter to Judge Richard Kopf, Roberts's letter to the circuit court, and affidavits of various people who had assisted in Roberts's defense. It applied the standard of competency this court outlined in Roberts v. State, 2013 Ark. 57, 426 S.W.3d 372, and concluded that Roberts " is competent to knowingly and intelligently waive all rights to post conviction relief and has the capacity to choose between life and death (i.e., elect execution) and to forego representation." We conclude that this sufficiently addressed the first four

Page 528

issues raised by Roberts, all of which fall under the umbrella of waiver. In addition, the circuit court adequately addressed Roberts's remaining arguments by finding that they were inapplicable and moot, respectively.[1]

         Turning to the merits, although Roberts divides the issue of competency into separate points, the crux of his appeal is whether he is competent to waive his postconviction remedies. The standard for competency to elect execution is not equivalent to the standard for competency to stand trial. Roberts, 2013 Ark. 57, at 11, 426 S.W.3d at 378. " [A] defendant sentenced to death will be able to forego a state appeal only if he has been judicially determined to have the capacity to understand the choice between life and death and to knowingly and intelligently waive any and all rights to appeal his sentence." Franz, 296 Ark. 181, 754 S.W.2d 839, overruled on other grounds by State v. Robbins, 339 Ark. 379, 5 S.W.3d 51 (1999). This is the standard that governs the waiver of rights to postconviction remedies following the affirmance of a death sentence, and we will reverse only if we find that the trial judge's conclusion is clearly erroneous. Id. A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the appellate court, after reviewing the entire evidence, is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Sartin v. State, 2012 Ark. 155, 400 S.W.3d 694.

         At the competency hearing in the circuit court, both parties presented testimony from psychological experts. The experts agreed that Roberts suffers from schizophrenia. Thus, the pertinent inquiry is whether this mental disease renders Roberts incapable of choosing between life and death or knowingly and intelligently waiving his postconviction rights.

         The State's expert, Dr. Mark Peacock, testified that he diagnosed Roberts with schizophrenia with themes of auditory and visual hallucinations and delusional beliefs. On direct examination, Dr. Peacock testified that there are varying degrees of schizophrenia and that this diagnosis does not necessarily mean that the person is incompetent to make a rational decision. However, when asked if Roberts was competent to make a decision whether to live or die, Dr. Peacock failed to reach an ultimate conclusion. He stated,

[I]t's a very difficult call for me just because there were elements of both psychotic reasoning involved in what I believe was going on with Mr. Roberts' decision as well as some very overtly stated, rational sounding reasons for why he would want to waive his [proceedings] . . . And whether one or the other amount to what I guess a preponderance of ...

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