Judge Orders Mental Exam of Terror Convict Before 8th Cir. Appeal
A judge wants a competency evaluation to see if a former janitor understands what will happen if he drops the appeal of his conviction and 20-year sentence for aiding the terrorist group al-Shabaab, reports the Pioneer Press.
In an order last Friday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of Mahamud Said Omar, 47, back to the lower court to hold a hearing at the judge's request.
When the issue of competency is raised -- whether by a party or based on a judge's observations of the defendant -- and there's a reasonable basis to believe competency is at issue, the court has an absolute duty to order an evaluation, according to the Mental Competency Best Practices Model.
Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis' decision to have Mahamud Said Omar examined by an expert came at the end of an hour-long hearing in which an emotionally unstable Omar alternately said he wanted to drop the appeal, then didn't, then did again.
"I think I'm going to finish my 20 years," Omar eventually told the judge.
Omar's lawyers have questioned his ability to comprehend the proceedings, and believe he is mentally ill. His family members said he has a history of suffering from seizures and hallucinations.
While answering Judge Davis' questions, Omar gave incoherent and rambling answers, peppered with sudden sobs, bizarre gestures and occasional profanity. At one point, Judge Davis took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes and fell silent for a few moments, reports the Pioneer Press.
"I haven't heard anything that's rational for him not to appeal," the judge said. Soon after, Davis ordered a mental competency hearing.
He then instructed both sides to reach a mutual decision on who would perform the mental health evaluation. The hearing will reconvene after the exam is completed. The goal of the hearing is to determine whether Omar is competent enough to understand the impact of his decision, and whether he is properly waiving his right to appeal.
If, after the hearing, Davis finds by a preponderance of the evidence that he's not competent, the court will commit Omar to the custody of the Attorney General who in turn will hospitalize him for treatment.
As discussed in a previous post, the government is allowed to administer antipsychotics to defendants involuntarily under Sell v. United States to restore competency if it involves a serious offense. The offense here was indeed serious.
Last month, Davis sentenced Omar for conspiracy and aiding and abetting al-Shabaab, a terror group active in Omar's birthplace of Somalia. When Judge Davis sentenced Omar, he told Omar's attorneys to appeal the case to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. But the day after they filed their notice of appeal, Omar told them he wanted to drop the appeal.
In court, Omar showed a lack of understanding of the proceeding. He was worried that if he loses on appeal, Judge Davis might give him a longer sentence. "If I lose the case, this sentence is for a lifetime, and I want a future," Omar said. "I wish to finish my sentence of 20 years."
"In 30 years of being a judge, I have never punished someone for taking an appeal and coming back and being re-sentenced," Davis reassured him. "There are so many issues in your case that are important for a higher court to review," the judge said. "If you do not go through with your appeal, those issues will never be able to be raised."
Mental competency is a tough subject for judges, but kudos to Judge Davis for handling it like a pro.
- Is There a Right to Competence in a Federal Habeas Proceeding? (FindLaw's SCOTUS Blog)
- Elizabeth Smart Kidnapping Trial: Suspect's Competency Hearing (FindLaw's Courtside)
- Overmedicated Prisoners: Tough to Prove Says 8th Circuit (FindLaw's Eighth Circuit Blog)