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Criminal Clinic Deputy Director and Student Attorney Testify Before the State Senate

April 21, 2008 11:40 AM

Panel balks at trial law change: Bill would make law match ruling on incompetent defendants ADVOCATE CAPITOL NEWS BUREAU , Baton Rouge – Asked to make Louisiana law comply with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving mentally incompetent defendants, a Senate committee on Tuesday postponed a decision on the legislation. But the measure’s sponsor said the move to defer action until both sides can work out a compromise effectively killed her Senate Bill 474 and leaves criminal defense lawyers looking for a proper case to appeal.

“I don’t think they’re going to talk to me. They do this every time,” said state Sen. Cheryl Gray, D-New Orleans, who sponsored the legislation.

State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said he would call Gray sometime after hearing from district attorneys. He said Gray’s measure was unnecessary and dangerous.

“Only thing we’re doing here is lowering the standards to make it easier for dangerous people to get off,” Caldwell said. “This is a major, major change in this state.”

His assistant, John Sinquefield, reminded the panel of convicted serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, who claimed mental incompetence, and that Anthony Bell was on trial about a mile away for allegedly murdering five people in a Baton Rouge church.

If Gray’s bill passed, “These people will be released out on the street with me and you,” Sinquefield said. “I’m not as convinced as they are of the unconstitutionality of our statute.”

Gray countered that the arguments raised by Caldwell and Sinquefield missed the point. SB474 was proposed only to bring Louisiana’s law into compliance with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Katherine Mattes, deputy director at the Tulane Law Clinic, noted the high court decisions specifically found that a similarly worded Oklahoma statute was unconstitutional.

SB474 would lower the standard by which sanity and mental competence is determined for people who are accused of a crime. Defendants cannot be tried if found by a court to be mentally incompetent. Such defendants are placed in an institution until they are mentally able to stand trial.

Louisiana authorities can often detain a mentally incompetent person awaiting trial. The legislation proposed to shorten the time period from 180 days to 90 days before a status conference could decide whether the defendant should stay in custody.