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7th Circuit orders hearing on competency, assistance of counsel

August 3, 2017

A federal court erred in denying a hearing for a man who claimed he was mentally incompetent to plead guilty to a firearm charge and received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Denny Ray Anderson pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. At sentencing, when the court asked Anderson if he understood that pleading guilty may deprive him of valuable civil rights such as voting, holding public office and serving on a jury, he replied “Yeah. … That’s pretty good.”

Because Anderson’s guilty plea prevented him from appealing, Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote, he was entitled to move for collateral relief under 28 U.S.C. §2255, which he did. He claimed he wasn't competent when he pleaded guilty due to mental illness and the effects of psychotropic medications he was taking, and that his attorney provided defective assistance for failing to challenge his competence.

“The district court rejected his petition outright. On appeal, he requests an evidentiary hearing to develop facts related to these interrelated claims. We agree that a hearing is appropriate,” Wood wrote in remanding Denny Ray Anderson v. United States of America, 15-2683, for an evidentiary hearing.

The panel found from the record that Anderson suffered an obvious severe psychotic disorder, and the district court didn’t sufficiently examine Anderson’s testimony that he had been diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia and a few other things.”

“Because the district court lacked a full picture of Anderson’s mental health, its finding that Anderson had the capacity to plead guilty rests on a flawed factual foundation that must be explored in a hearing,” the 7th Circuit concluded. The panel noted defense counsel Jesse A. Cook apparently learned Anderson received his medication irregularly during pretrial detention, but this was only disclosed at sentencing.

“Just as we have questions about Anderson’s capacity to plead guilty, we have questions about Cook’s decision not to raise Anderson’s capacity to the court,” Wood wrote. “Cook knew that Anderson had a lengthy criminal record that had been fueled by untreated mental illness. And Cook knew that the jail inconsistently gave Anderson his medication during his pretrial detention, and that these gaps in treatment resulted in periods of instability. This was enough to call into question Anderson’s ability to consult with counsel and his understanding of the proceeding.”

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