California Case Law - The FindLaw California Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal Opinion Summaries Blog

Murder Conviction Overturned Over Competency

When it comes to criminal convictions, society has a real need for those convictions to be just. As the saying goes, it's better to let however many guilty people free than to let one innocent person be incarcerated.

However, as the California Supreme Court recently explained, in People v. Rodas, questions of a defendant's competency to stand trial need to be handled with the utmost scrutiny. In short, simply having questions or well-founded concerns should be enough to put a stop to the proceedings until those are resolved.

Domingo Rodas

The murder trial that Domingo Rodas faced, as described by the California Supreme Court, sounds like something out of a Tom Wolfe novel. Rodas has struggled with mental health issues for decades, it seems, and prior to this case, had previously been ruled incompetent to stand trial on lesser charges. But after receiving treatment, he was deemed competent, then convicted and served his sentence out. After being released, years later, he was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. Again, he was deemed incompetent and placed into mandatory psychiatric care. After being put on medication, he eventually regained competency.

After regaining competency, he was transferred to the state prison to await trial, which a judge had ordered to commence based upon the doctor's determination of competency aided by medication. No competency hearing was ever held (which the state high court explained was an error). At the start of trial, Rodas's attorney discovered that he had no longer been taking his medication and had started exhibiting the same symptoms of incompetency as he had when he was declared incompetent.

Despite Rodas's own counsel expressing these concerns during an in camera conference, the trial was allowed to continue. Rodas was convicted and sentenced to a few life sentences, despite the fact that when he testified, against his counsel's advice, he spoke in a "word salad" that was demonstrative of his being incompetent.

Unfortunately for Rodas, although the California Supreme Court ruled in his favor, he still is likely to face another trial on the charges he was convicted on, and will likely have to face incessant scrutiny as to his competency.

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