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Woman’s murder conviction vacated for ineffective counsel

May 17, 2019

A woman with a history of mental illness who was convicted in 2002 of murdering her boyfriend after testifying the she heard a voice telling her she was the Messiah has won her federal habeas case asserting ineffective assistance of counsel. She will be freed unless the state opts within 120 days to retry her.

Anastazia Schmid experienced an “extreme malfunction” of the Indiana criminal justice system that justified federal habeas relief, Southern District of Indiana Senior Judge William T. Lawrence wrote in a Wednesday order. Lawrence ruled Schmid’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a competency hearing despite Schmid’s history of mental health issues dating to childhood.

“The State respectfully disagrees with the District Court’s assessment of this case and agrees with the Court of Appeals of Indiana’s finding that Schmid received a fair trial," the Indiana Attorney General's Office said in a statement Friday. "The Office of the Indiana Attorney General is consulting with the local prosecutor’s office and is considering all options including an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals.”

A Vanderburgh County jury found Schmid guilty but mentally ill in 2002 after she was accused of murdering her boyfriend, Tony Heathcote, whom she had been told molested her daughter from a prior marriage, according to the record. Schmid was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

The Indiana Court of Appeals, which affirmed Schmid’s conviction, described the murder this way:

“(O)n March 4, 2001, Schmid and Heathcote were having sexual relations at their home using restraints, a dog collar, a leash, and a blindfold when Heathcote suggested that Schmid play the part of the little girl and Heathcote would play the part of the daddy. This statement caused Schmid to think of her daughter. At that time, Schmid obtained a knife and began stabbing Heathcote who was blindfolded and restrained at the ankles. Heathcote was stabbed thirty-nine (39) times and died. Later, Schmid indicated that at the time of the stabbing she had heard a voice telling her that she was the messiah and that Heathcote was evil and needed to be eliminated.”

Schmid was at first represented by public defenders Phillip Smith and Amy Hutchinson, and Schmid initially was judged incompetent to stand trial. Months later, and after changes to her medication, Schmid was back in court, and by that time, her family had retained attorney David Hennessy to represent her.

While Schmid was continuing to hear voices and shaking, Judge Thomas H. Busch, the third judge to preside in her case, conferred with Schmid’s defense counsel about whether she could be deemed competent. Despite their concerns, Lawrence wrote, “Mr. Hennessy stated, ‘[w]e would stipulate to that ... she’s been communicating with counsel.’ … Ms. Hutchinson stated, ‘[s]he gets — she can talk to me about the trial last night as well, it’s just the auditory voices and her eyes, I had some concerns.’” The judge then found Schmid competent, and a jury convicted her three days later.

“…Schmid’s mental illness left her prone to psychotic episodes triggered by stressful or traumatic situations,” Lawrence wrote. “Consequently, a psychiatric evaluation conducted eight months prior would provide little insight into Ms. Schmid’s mental fitness at the time of the trial.”

The Indiana Supreme Court declined to hear Schmid’s direct appeal, and she was denied post-conviction relief in state court, leading to this habeas petition. Lawrence ruled that the Indiana Court of Appeals, in rejecting Schmid’s PCR complaint, had “altered the quote from the trial court’s decision on post-conviction which stated that ‘[b]ased on testimony of Amy Hutchinson and Phil Smith, Ms. Schmid was able to assist and communicate with her attorneys.’ 

“The original quote makes clear that the post-conviction court and, by adoption, the Indiana Court of Appeals relied only on the testimony of Ms. Hutchinson and Mr. Smith to conclude that Ms. Schmid was able to assist her attorneys. This is significant because Mr. Smith had withdrawn from representing Ms. Schmid before trial. He testified at the state post-conviction hearing that once Mr. Hennessy appeared in the case, ‘the public defender’s office felt their participation was not necessary.’ … Hutchinson also testified that she took a supporting role to … Hennessy who was Ms. Schmid’s lead counsel at trial,” Lawrence wrote.

“As Ms. Schmid’s lead attorney at trial, Mr. Hennessy’s assessment of Ms. Schmid’s ability to participate in her defense should have been key to any determination by the state post-conviction court about whether there was a bona fide doubt Ms. Schmid was competent to stand trial” Lawrence continued. “At the state post-conviction evidentiary hearing Mr. Hennessy stated that if he had attempted to convey a preliminary plea offer to Ms. Schmid before trial, she would have given him a ‘blank stare.’ … Therefore, he did not bother to discuss it with her. When asked whether he thought Ms. Schmid was able to assist in her defense, Mr. Hennessy testified: ‘I think she could understand what you’re saying but she was heavily medicated and it — I don’t know almost like being immobilized.’”

“…The testimony of Ms. Schmid’s counsel that she was psychotic, heavily medicated, and would have stared blankly had Mr. Hennessy attempted to discuss a plea offer with her, raised a bona fide doubt as to her competence to stand trial, particularly when one takes into account that she had previously been declared incompetent during the same proceedings. Her counsel’s failure to request a competency hearing, and instead to stipulate to her competency when the prosecution raised the issue during trial was deficient performance,” Lawrence wrote. “And because the evidence raises a bona fide doubt as to her competence to stand trial, she has ‘establish[ed] a reasonable probability that [she] would have been found incompetent . . . if [her] attorneys had requested a competency hearing.’”

The case is Anastazia Schmid v. Steve McCauley, 1:14-cv-200.

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