NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has reversed the conviction and death sentence of Richard Taylor, a severely mentally ill man who has twice been forced to stand trial despite his mental illness and likely incompetence. Taylor was represented during the appeal of his conviction by the American Civil Liberties Union and Kelly Gleason, then a private attorney and now with the Office of the Tennessee Post-Conviction Defender.
Handed down Friday, the ruling grants Taylor a new trial because of numerous constitutional errors. The ruling concludes that Taylor unconstitutionally faced his capital trial alone – without counsel – because the trial court in Williamson County “failed to consider the full panoply of evidence relevant to whether the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to counsel.”
“The decision by the Court of Criminal Appeals rights the terrible injustice of a death sentence imposed against Richard Taylor, who faced his capital trial – while mentally ill, likely incompetent, and forcibly medicated – without the benefit of counsel,” said Cassandra Stubbs, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Durham, N.C.-based Capital Punishment Project. “By recognizing the importance of Mr. Taylor’s right to counsel, including the right to standby counsel, the Court firmly established critical protections for mentally ill defendants who face capital charges.”
Friday’s ruling states that a number of significant errors were made during Taylor’s 2003 trial, including the denial of his constitutional right to counsel at a pre-trial competency hearing, the failure of the trial court to hold a competency hearing during the trial, and the failure of the trial court to appoint advisory counsel. The ruling also states that the trial court gave erroneous instructions to the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial.
In 2003, Taylor, who was schizophrenic, delusional and heavily sedated by forced medication, faced his two-day capital trial alone – representing himself without even standby counsel to help him. Wearing prison garb and sunglasses, Taylor called no witnesses, introduced no evidence, and presented no defense. The few cross-examination questions he posed during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial were delusional, and he was completely silent during the sentencing phase of the proceedings. The jury that sentenced Taylor to death was never presented with compelling evidence of Taylor's difficult childhood, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations or severe mental illness.
“Richard Taylor’s capital trial highlights the fundamental unfairness of capital prosecutions of mentally ill defendants,” Stubbs said. “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for mentally ill defendants, like Mr. Taylor, to suffer delusions of grandeur and to seek to represent themselves at their capital trials. By firmly upholding Mr. Taylor’s right to counsel, including standby counsel, the Court of Criminal Appeals took an important step forward for justice in Tennessee and for justice for the mentally ill.”
The ACLU mounted numerous legal challenges to the trial and proceedings leading up to it, including the judge’s failure to hold a competency hearing during the trial when it was obvious that Taylor was incapable of standing trial and representing himself.
During a pre-trial hearing in which Taylor testified about why he should be allowed to represent himself, for example, Taylor made comments suggesting he believed he had previously died and come back to life, and that he alone was equipped to handle his capital trial. The appeals court faulted the trial court for concluding that Taylor knowingly and intelligently waived counsel when it accepted these statements without further questioning.
The trial court also erred, according to the appellate court ruling, by failing to appoint standby, advisory counsel. The appeals court ruled that advisory counsel was necessary because “this was a legally complex capital murder case” and because advisory counsel “would have been in the unique position to raise any competency issues arising during trial.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals further concluded that the trial court erred by failing to hold a competency hearing mid-trial given Taylor’s serious history of mental illness and his behavior at trial, including wearing sunglasses throughout the trial and failing to meaningfully question witnesses or give a closing statement.
Finally, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Taylor’s death sentence was imposed in an arbitrary manner given the fact that the jury was not instructed to consider the evidence of mental disease or defect at the penalty phase of his trial.
Additional information about this case, including a copy of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruling can be found online at: www.aclu.org/capital/mentalillness/30356res20070705.html