Drope v. Missouri
420 U.S. 162 (1975)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975)

Drope v. Missouri

No. 73-638

Argued November 13, 1974

Decided February 19, 1975

420 U.S. 162

Syllabus

In 1969 petitioner was indicted, with two others, for rape of petitioner's wife. Following severance of petitioner's case, he filed a motion for a continuance so that he might be further examined and receive psychiatric treatment, attaching thereto the report of a psychiatrist who had examined him at his counsel's request and had suggested such treatment. The motion was denied, and the case proceeded to trial. Petitioner's wife testified, repeating and confirming information concerning petitioner's "strange behavior" which was contained in the report and stating that she had changed her mind about not wanting to prosecute petitioner because he had tried to kill her on the Sunday prior to trial. On the second day of the trial, petitioner shot himself in a suicide attempt and was hospitalized, but, despite his absence, the trial court denied a motion for a mistrial on the ground that his absence was voluntary, and the trial continued. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and petitioner was sentenced to life imprisonment. His motion for a new trial, asserting that the trial court had erred in proceeding with the trial when no evidence was produced that his absence was voluntary, was denied, the trial court finding again that his absence was voluntary. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed, sustaining that finding and also holding that the trial court's denial of the continuance motion was not an abuse of discretion. Subsequently, petitioner's motion to vacate the conviction and sentence, alleging, inter alia, that his constitutional rights had been violated by the failure to order a pretrial psychiatric examination and by completing the trial in his absence, was denied. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that neither the psychiatric report attached to petitioner's motion for a continuance nor his wife's testimony raised a reasonable doubt of his fitness to proceed, that petitioner's suicide attempt did not create a reasonable doubt of his competence as a matter of law, and that he had failed to demonstrate the inadequacy of the procedures employed for protecting his rights. The court also held that the

Page 420 U. S. 163

trial court's finding as to voluntary absence was not clearly erroneous.

Held:

1. The Missouri courts failed to accord proper weight to the evidence suggesting petitioner's incompetence. When considered together with the information available prior to trial and the testimony of petitioner's wife at trial, the information concerning petitioner's suicide attempt created a sufficient doubt of his competence to stand trial to require further inquiry. Pp. 420 U. S. 178-181.

2. Whatever the relationship between mental illness and incompetence to stand trial, in this case, the bearing of the former on the latter was sufficiently likely that, in light of the evidence of petitioner's behavior, including his suicide attempt, and there being no opportunity without his presence to evaluate that bearing in fact, the correct course was to suspend the trial until such an evaluation could be made. Pp. 420 U. S. 181-182.

3. Assuming petitioner's right to be present at the trial was one that could be waived, there was an insufficient inquiry to afford a basis for deciding the issue of waiver. P. 420 U. S. 182.

4. Petitioner's due process rights would not be adequately protected by remanding the case for a psychiatric examination to determine whether he was, in fact, competent to stand trial in 1969, but the State is free to retry him, assuming that, at the time of such trial, he is competent to be tried. P. 420 U. S. 183.

498 S.W.2d 838, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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