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Name: People v. Johnson
Case #: C082890
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 3 DCA
Opinion Date: 03/13/2018

Trial court erred by refusing to hold a competency hearing pursuant to Penal Code section 1368 when faced with substantial evidence defendant was incompetent to stand trial. Appellant was charged with mayhem and other domestic violence crimes. Days before trial, his attorney expressed doubt about his competency to stand trial due to his erratic behavior in court and at the jail. The trial court refused defense counsel’s multiple requests for a competency hearing pursuant to section 1368 based on the belief that appellant’s behavior was merely a manipulative ploy to delay the proceedings. Appellant was placed on suicide watch at the jail and refused to come to court. The trial was completed in his absence, and the jury convicted him of mayhem and other charges. He appealed. Held: Reversed. A person cannot stand trial who is not mentally competent to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist in his or her defense in a rational manner. (People v. Jones (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1115, 1152.) When a defendant has come forward with substantial evidence of present mental incompetence, due process requires that a full competence hearing be held as a matter of right, and the trial judge has no discretion to exercise. (People v. Welch (1999) 20 Cal.4th 701, 738.) Here, appellant engaged in acts of self-harm in court and at the jail, shouted to voices in his head, defecated in his pants while in court, and was moved to a medical unit at the jail for suicide watch. According to the court, “the most glaring deficit in this case is the utter lack of any psychological evaluation of defendant available to the court.” In the absence of an expert opinion that defendant was feigning his mental health issues, the court concluded there was substantial evidence that he may not have been competent to stand trial, and reversed the judgment.

Because there was sufficient evidence to support the mayhem conviction, future retrial is not barred by double jeopardy. If there is insufficient evidence to support a conviction, double jeopardy precludes retrial on charges after judgment has been reversed on appeal. (People v. Superior Court (Marks) (1991) 1 Cal.4th 56, 72.) Penal Code section 203 defines simple mayhem as disabling, disfiguring, rendering a body part useless, cutting the tongue, putting out an eye, or slitting the nose, ear, or lip of another person. California case law has expanded the definition beyond the English common law definition which required dismemberment. Section 203 pays particular attention to the face, recognizing the particular pain and emotional scarring that results from disfiguring a person’s face. While it is true that injuries must be more than slight and temporary, here appellant bit the victim’s eye and lip, causing an injury that required a doctor to glue her eyebrow back together. The victim’s testimony about her permanent scars constituted substantial evidence to support the mayhem conviction. Thus, appellant can be retried for mayhem if the trial court finds he is mentally competent to stand trial following a full competency hearing and the prosecution refiles the charges against him.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: