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State v. Sharrow

Supreme Court of Vermont

August 25, 2017

State of Vermont
v.
Christopher A. Sharrow

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Rutland Unit, Criminal Division Thomas A. Zonay, J.

          David Tartter, Deputy State's Attorney, Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, and Rebecca Turner and Kelly Green, Appellate Defenders, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. This case comes before the Court on interlocutory appeal. The sole issue is whether, under 13 V.S.A. § 4814, the State may compel a defendant to submit to a competency evaluation conducted by a mental health expert of the State's choosing, following a court-ordered competency evaluation by a neutral mental health expert.[1] We hold that the State may not compel such an evaluation, and we therefore reverse.

         ¶ 2. The relevant facts are not in dispute. The State charged defendant with second- degree murder in July 2013. While defendant was incarcerated pretrial, his counsel requested a competency hearing. The court ordered an evaluation and, pursuant to 13 V.S.A. § 4814, the Department of Mental Health selected a neutral expert to conduct the evaluation. The neutral expert conducted a competency evaluation on February 15, 2015, but defense counsel was not present when the doctor conducted the examination and counsel moved for a reevaluation. Again, the court ordered an evaluation and the Department selected a second expert. The second expert requested access to the first expert's report and later requested a neuropsychological consult. The Department declined to provide funding for a neuropsychological examination, and the expert, who maintained that such an examination was necessary to complete the competency evaluation, suggested that the court reassign the evaluation to another doctor. On February 12, 2016, the court granted that request and the Department subsequently appointed another expert to conduct the competency evaluation. The third court-appointed expert, Dr. Weker, concluded that "defendant is not mentally competent to stand trial for the alleged offense." The parties received a copy of that report on May 23, 2016.

         ¶ 3. In the meantime, defense counsel engaged an expert, Dr. Wilmuth, to perform a competency evaluation, which Dr. Wilmuth completed on April 24, 2015. Defendant did not attempt to introduce the results of Dr. Wilmuth's report. Nevertheless, after receiving Dr. Weker's report, the State retained its own expert, Dr. Linder, and at a status conference on June 20, 2016, requested that Dr. Linder be given access to defendant in order to conduct a fifth competency evaluation. Defendant objected to the State's request, arguing that "[t]he [c]ourt has no legal authority to order [defendant] to submit to a psychiatric evaluation arranged by the State." In a written order dated July 18, 2016, the court granted the State's motion and ordered defendant to submit to a competency evaluation conducted by the State's expert. In response, defendant filed this interlocutory appeal.

         ¶ 4. The appeal presents one issue: whether 13 V.S.A. § 4814 gives the court the authority to order a defendant to submit to a competency evaluation conducted by an expert retained by the prosecution, in addition to a court-ordered competency evaluation conducted by a neutral expert selected by the Department of Mental Health. This is a pure question of law and we therefore review it de novo. See State v. Beauregard, 2003 VT 3, ¶ 4, 175 Vt. 472, 820 A.2d 183.

         ¶ 5. Our analysis begins with the language of the statute. "Our primary objective in construing a statute is to effectuate the Legislature's intent." Wesco, Inc. v. Sorrell, 2004 VT 102, ¶ 14, 177 Vt. 287, 865 A.2d 350. If a statute's language is unambiguous and its words have plain meaning, "we accept the statute's plain meaning as the intent of the Legislature and our inquiry proceeds no further." Id.

         ¶ 6. 13 V.S.A. § 4814(a)(4) provides:

Any court before which a criminal prosecution is pending may order the Department of Mental Health to have the defendant examined by a psychiatrist at any time before, during or after trial, and before final judgment . . . when the Court believes that there is doubt as to the defendant's mental competency to be tried for the alleged offense.

         Additionally, § 4814(b) gives the trial court the authority to order a competency evaluation on its own motion, on a motion filed by the State, on a motion filed by the defendant, or on a motion filed by another party acting on behalf of the defendant. Sections 4815 and 4816 outline the process by which a competency evaluation must be conducted and limit the scope of permissible uses of a report prepared in accordance with these sections. Specifically, § 4816(d) prohibits the State from admitting into evidence any statement made by a defendant during a competency evaluation "in any criminal proceeding for the purpose of proving the commission of a criminal offense or for the purpose of impeaching testimony" of the defendant. Section 4816(f) also explains that the court's decision to introduce a competency report "shall not preclude either party or the [c]ourt from calling the psychiatrist who wrote the report as a witness or from calling witnesses or introducing other relevant evidence."

         ¶ 7. The language of the statute is clear on its face. When the court has doubt as to a defendant's competency, the court has the authority to "order the Department of Mental Health to have the defendant examined by a psychiatrist." 13 V.S.A. § 4814(a). Although the State is correct that "[n]othing in the statute contemplates that the only expert witness [at the competency hearing] be a court-appointed expert, " the statute does not grant the court the authority to require a defendant to submit to a competency evaluation by any other doctor.[2] Additionally, although the State argues that to prohibit it from conducting its own competency evaluation would undermine the Legislature's intent that the competency hearing "be conducted in a manner which permits both parties meaningfully to challenge the evidence of the other, " the statute provides a ...


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