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State v. Coley

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

June 12, 2014

The State of Washington, Petitioner,
Blayne Jeffrey Coley, Respondent

Argued September 19, 2013.

Page 703

Appeal from Grant County Superior Court. 08-1-00396-8. Honorable Evan E. Sperline.

D. Angus Lee, Prosecuting Attorney, and Carole L. Highland, Deputy, for petitioner.

David L. Donnan and Gregory C. Link (of Washington Appellate Project ), for respondent.

AUTHOR: Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen. WE CONCUR: Justice Charles W. Johnson, Justice Susan Owens, Justice Debra L. Stephens, Justice Charles K. Wiggins, Justice Steven C. Gonzá lez, James M. Johnson, Justice Pro Tem. AUTHOR: Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud. WE CONCUR: Justice Mary E. Fairhurst.


Page 704

Madsen, C.J.

[180 Wn.2d 547] ¶ 1 This case addresses the proper assignment of the burden of proof at a pretrial competency hearing following treatment designed to restore competency. The trial court placed the burden on respondent Mr. Blayne Coley to prove his incompetence. The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that the burden rests with the State to prove restoration of competency and that the trial

Page 705

court's mistake created structural error. We reverse the Court of Appeals and hold that the relevant statute--interpreted by its language, the context of the provision, the statutory scheme as a whole, and related provisions--places the burden on the party contesting competency where, after an evaluation ordered under RCW 10.77.060, the individual has been evaluated as competent. We also hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to rule on Mr. Coley's requests to proceed pro se pending a competency determination, and that Mr. Coley's request after he was deemed competent to stand trial, and therefore eligible for self-representation, was equivocal. We reverse the Court of Appeals.


¶ 2 While police were responding to a domestic incident at the residence of Mr. Coley and his girl friend, Mr. Coley informed officers that his girl friend's 13-year-old son had molested him. Upon investigation, respondent Mr. Coley was charged with and ultimately convicted in Grant County Superior Court of two counts of rape of a child in the second degree in violation of RCW 9A.44.076.

¶ 3 Prior to trial, counsel and the court raised concerns about Mr. Coley's competency on multiple occasions. Defense counsel filed a motion requesting an evaluation of Mr. Coley's mental condition in July 2008. After referring Mr. Coley to Eastern State Hospital for evaluation and treatment, the court on December 9, 2008, entered an order of competency based on the hospital's uncontested report. The court moved forward with pretrial preparations until, during an April 20, 2009, hearing regarding Mr. Coley's request to proceed pro se, Judge Evan Sperline again became concerned with Mr. Coley's competency. Judge Sperline referred Mr. Coley to Eastern State Hospital for another competency evaluation. After receiving a report from Dr. William Grant at Eastern State Hospital that Mr. Coley was incompetent, the court on July 16, 2009, ordered a 90-day stay of proceedings and referred Mr. Coley back to Eastern State Hospital for treatment designed to restore him to competency. The order staying the proceedings and ordering treatment included a finding that " the Defendant cannot stand trial at this time because he is not competent." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 38 (90 Day Order for Stay of Proceedings for Competency Restoration Treatment); see RCW 10.77.084 (court shall order stay of proceedings pending treatment and restoration period).

¶ 4 Following the treatment period, Dr. Grant issued a report stating that Mr. Coley was competent to stand trial. Defense counsel submitted a report from Mr. Coley's medical [180 Wn.2d 549] expert, Dr. Jorgenson, reflecting the evaluation. The court ordered a competency hearing.

¶ 5 At this hearing on June 11, 2010, the court placed the burden on Mr. Coley to prove his incompetence. After hearing testimony from both doctors and Mr. Coley himself, and considering the doctors' reports and a recorded interview between Dr. Grant and Mr. Coley, Judge John Antosz determined that Mr. Coley was competent to stand trial. Judge Antosz engaged each of the three witnesses in his own line of questioning in addition to counsel's typical examination. When he made his competency ruling at the end of the hearing, Judge Antosz cited the value of all of these sources of information and emphasized his own questioning and observation.

¶ 6 Concurrent with these pretrial competency inquiries, Mr. Coley made several attempts to exercise his right to self-representation. He first requested self-representation in February 2009, which the court granted after a thorough colloquy. The court appointed Mr. Coley's attorney as standby counsel, and Mr. Coley represented himself as pro se counsel for a portion of the pretrial proceedings. In March 2009, however, Mr. Coley requested that his attorney be reinstated and the court granted that request. Then, in April 2009, Mr. Coley again asserted a right to represent himself. The court denied Mr. Coley's request due to the concerns about his competency that became apparent during his conversation with the judge. CP at 31 (Def.'s Mot. for Pro Se Defense Without Counsel). As noted, the judge subsequently referred Mr. Coley to

Page 706

Eastern State Hospital for a competency evaluation.

¶ 7 At the competency hearing in June 2010, Mr Coley again stated his desire to act pro se. The judge acknowledged Mr. Coley's request but informed him that the court could not consider his request at that time and that, if he still wanted to represent himself after an order of competency had been entered, he would need to file a new motion with the court.

[180 Wn.2d 550] ¶ 8 On June 15, 2010, after the court had orally judged Mr. Coley competent but before the order of competency issued, the court discussed Mr. Coley's stated desire to represent himself. The judge advised Mr. Coley against pursuing his right to self-representation, and the two seemed to reach a consensus that Mr. Coley would continue to be represented by his attorney, although the record is not entirely clear.

¶ 9 Mr. Coley did file a written motion on June 16, 2010, titled " Motion for Order to Speculate Right to Self Defense." The judge told Mr. Coley that he did not understand the nature of the motion and cautioned that he could not hear any comments that were meant to be presented during the trial itself. Mr. Coley responded with an unrelated question about plea bargain procedures. The subject of self-representation did not arise again.

¶ 10 After a mistrial, the case was retried and a jury ultimately found Mr. Coley guilty of two counts of rape of a child in the second degree. On appeal, Mr. Coley argued that the trial court incorrectly placed the burden on him to prove his incompetence at the June 2010 competency hearing, and that this error constituted a denial of his right to due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Additionally, Mr. Coley contended that the trial court's failure to adequately consider his repeated motions to represent himself without an attorney violated his right to self-representation guaranteed by article I, section 22 of the Washington Constitution. The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that the trial court misallocated the burden of proof at the competency hearing and this was structural error. Because the Court of Appeals ordered reversal on this ground, it did not reach Mr. Coley's argument regarding self-representation. The State petitioned for review.

[180 Wn.2d 551] ANALYSIS

1. The Burden of Proof at Competency Hearings

¶ 11 Reviewing courts in Washington customarily defer to the trial court's judgment of a defendant's mental competency. State v. Ortiz, 104 Wn.2d 479, 482, 706 P.2d 1069 (1985). This court will reverse a trial court's competency decision only upon finding an abuse of discretion. Id. However, the burden of proof at a competency hearing is an issue of statutory ...

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