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United States v. Karr

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

May 16, 2016



P.K. Holmes, III Chief U.S. District Judge

This matter comes before the Court for determination of Defendant Brett Karr’s competency to stand trial. For the following reasons, the Court finds Karr competent to stand trial in all respects. Therefore, the jury trial for this remains set to begin on May 31, 2016.

I. Background

On August 7, 2015, Karr made an initial appearance in connection with a complaint charging him with production of child pornography. Karr subsequently filed a motion for psychiatric exam to determine competency (Doc. 8), which the Court granted via an order (Doc. 9) entered August 12, 2015. On September 16, 2015, Karr was indicted on four counts of production of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2251(a) and (e), and one count of possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252A(a)(5)(B) and (b)(2).

Karr’s first psychiatric evaluation was conducted by Dr. Jessica Micono, a forensic psychologist with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”).[1] Dr. Micono evaluated Karr over the course of thirty days at a BOP facility in Englewood, Colorado. The evaluation consisted of multiple in-person interviews between Karr and Dr. Micono; numerous tests administered specifically to determine competency, intelligence, or the possibility of malingering; consultations with other BOP personnel who observed Karr in his living quarters and during his free time while at the Englewood facility; and a review of Karr’s phone calls while at the Englewood facility, all of which were recorded. (Doc. 14; p. 1; Doc. 24, p. 63-72). Ultimately, Dr. Micono diagnosed Karr with (1) Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic Attacks; (2) Agoraphobia; (3) Dependent Personality Disorder; and (4) Rule-Out Malingering.[2] (Doc. 14, p. 15). Karr exhibited signs of malingering including exaggerating his mental health symptoms and presenting memory function as worse than normal.[3] (Doc. 14, p. 15). During Dr. Micono’s evaluation of Karr, Karr reportedly stated on numerous occasions, including during a recorded phone call to his mother, that he preferred to go to a mental hospital than back to a correctional facility. (Doc. 14, p. 15). Dr. Micono reported that there were no issues with Karr’s behavior during his evaluation, that he transitioned smoothly, and that Karr felt at that time that his attorney was trying to do what was best for him (Doc. 14, p. 19; Doc. 24, 66-67). Dr. Micono ultimately opined that Karr understood the nature and circumstances of the charges against him and was able to assist properly in his own defense, and was thus legally competent to stand trial. (Doc. 14, p. 20).

At Karr’s subsequent arraignment on the five-count indictment the Court noted that the evaluation by Dr. Micono indicated Karr was mentally competent to proceed in all respects, and Karr did not object to the evaluation at that time. Subsequently, however, Karr’s counsel encountered difficulty in effectively communicating with Karr and filed a motion to continue the trial in order to obtain a second independent psychiatric evaluation (Doc. 17). That motion to continue was granted by text order on November 24, 2015. Karr underwent a second psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Gerald Stein (Doc. 18-1). Dr. Stein’s evaluation consisted of one in-person meeting, which lasted two hours and forty three minutes, as well as one fifteen minute follow-up phone call. (Doc. 18-1, p. 3). Dr. Stein also reviewed Dr. Micono’s report in forming his opinions. (Doc. 18-1, p. 2). Based on Karr’s self-reported symptoms and self-reported medical history, Dr. Stein diagnosed Karr with (1) Bi-Polar Disorder; (2) Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; (3) Social Anxiety Disorder; (4) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; (5) Paranoid Personality Disorder; and (6) Dependent Personality Disorder. (Doc. 18-1, pp. 10-11). Dr. Stein opined that “Brett Karr is not competent to stand trial because he does not trust his attorney and is not confiding in him. Thus he cannot assist properly in his own defense. This distrust is part of his Paranoid Personality Disorder.” (Doc. 18-1, p. 12).

Based on the conflicting expert reports, the Court found reasonable cause to doubt Karr’s competency and granted Karr’s motion for a hearing on the matter. The competency hearing occurred on March 21, 2016, with both Dr. Micono and Dr. Stein providing testimony. (Doc. 24) During his testimony at the competency hearing, Dr. Stein elaborated that Karr’s bi-polar diagnosis was “terribly important” to his lacking trust in others (Doc. 24, p. 27), and that ultimately Karr’s condition as it relates to incompetence was attributable to a combination of his Paranoid Personality Disorder, Bi-polar Disorder, and PTSD. (Doc. 24, p. 29). Dr. Micono’s testimony was consistent with her report.

II. Legal Standard

A defendant is incompetent to stand trial “[i]f, after a hearing, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant 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). The Court may consider various factors, including expert medical opinions and its own observations of the defendant during the proceedings when making a determination as to competency. United States v. Ghane, 593 F.3d 775, 779 (8th Cir. 2010). “Importantly, not every manifestation of mental illness demonstrates incompetence. That a defendant suffers from a mental deficiency or demonstrates bizarre, volatile, and irrational behavior does not necessarily make him incompetent to stand trial.” Id. (citing Vogt v. United States, 88 F.3d 587, 591 (8th Cir. 1996)) (internal marks omitted).

The parties agree that Karr understands the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him; therefore the only issue to resolve is whether Karr is able to assist properly in his defense. “The Supreme Court has defined a defendant’s ability to assist properly in his defense as possessing a ‘sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.’” Id. at 780 (quoting Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348, 354 (1996)) (other citations omitted). Dissatisfaction with defense counsel cannot be equated with incompetence due to an inability to assist counsel. Id. at 781. Otherwise, “our federal medical facilities would be full of defendants who were incompetent to stand trial.” Id. Rather, “[t]he critical factor for competency purposes is whether the defendant is suffering from a mental disease or defect that renders him mentally incapable of assisting properly in his defense.” Id.

In making a final determination on Karr’s competency, the Court is tasked with weighing the credibility of the competing expert reports and testimony of Dr. Micono and Dr. Stein. As the Eighth Circuit has pointed out, “[i]t is certainly within a district court’s province to choose one expert’s report over a competing qualified expert’s opinion.” Ghane, 593 F.3d at 781 (citation omitted). In doing so, “it is not the opinion itself that is important, but the rationale underlying it.” Id. In any case, the burden of persuasion remains on the defendant to show that he is incompetent by a preponderance of the evidence. Vogt, 88 F.3d at 591.

III. Analysis

Having thoroughly reviewed the competing expert reports, the transcript from Karr’s competency hearing, and the relevant portions of the record in this case, the Court gives greater weight to the report of Dr. Micono and finds that Karr has failed to meet his burden to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that he is unable to assist properly in his own defense due to a mental disease or defect. Karr is therefore deemed competent to stand trial.

The underlying rationale of Dr. Stein’s opinions are premised on a depth-of-inquiry that is much too shallow to rebut either the thorough examination conducted by Dr. Micono or even the general presumption of competence applied to every criminal defendant. Specifically, Dr. Stein collected essentially all of the information he relied upon in forming his opinion during a two-hour and forty-three-minute interview and a fifteen minute follow-up phone call with Karr. In addition, the information collected during ...

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