7th Circuit upholds competency finding in ‘zig-zag’ weapons case

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a finding that a defendant facing a weapons charge was competent to stand trial despite defense counsel’s insistence to the contrary.

Issues began in United States of America v. Jacob K. Wessel, 19-3002, after police received a call in August 2016 that defendant-appellant Jacob Wessel had talked about suicide and had stolen a car. Once police found the car and Wessel, he ran and was ordered to the ground.

Wessel refused and told officers to shoot his head, but they refused. Wessel then said, “Well, if you’re not going to do it …” and drew a gun, raising it toward an officer.

Police shot the gun out of Wessel’s hand and hit his shoulder. He was later charged and convicted as a felon in possession of a firearm.

Prior to his conviction, Wessel was ordered to three, 45-day evaluations by mental health experts. He was evaluated by multiple other mental health experts sent by defense counsel and underwent three competency hearings.

The Indiana Southern District Court ultimately found Wessel competent to stand trial, but during voir dire, Wessel struck the table, rose from his chair and “erupted in a volcano of profanity and accusations, including accusations that the United States was trying to kill him and ‘It’s alien mind control!’”

After now-Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt sent him to a remote room where he stayed for most of the trial, she later brought Wessel back and advised him of his rights to testify or not. After asking defense counsel if he and Wessel had discussed the issue, Wessel’s attorney said, “Your Honor, I haven’t had any rational discussions with Mr. Wessel in three years.”

Wessel ultimately did not testify and was convicted by a jury “quickly.”  He was sentenced to 100 months in prison.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in a Tuesday decision rejected Wessel’s request to vacate the conviction, ruling that the district court committed no clear error in finding Wessel competent to stand trial, despite multiple assertions from defense counsel that he was not.

On Wessel’s argument that the district court applied the wrong standard for competency, the 7th Circuit noted that the chief judge “quoted that exact language from (Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960)) at the outset of her analysis and reiterated that standard throughout.”

“We are not convinced (Price v. Thurmer, 637 F.3d 831, 833–34 (7th Cir. 2011)) lowered the Dusky standard. And it is clear the judge did not rely solely on Price,” Senior Judge Daniel Manion wrote for the 7th Circuit.  “… It is important that we defer to the district judge because she was in the courtroom, she heard the testimony of the three experts, she was in a position to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and she could also evaluate Wessel’s demeanor over time.”

The appellate panel likewise found the district court was well-positioned to conclude that Wessel was not presently suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him incompetent, and that he could cooperate if he wanted to during trial. Thus, it found no clear error in the court’s reliance on the government’s experts.

Finally, the panel concluded the chief judge committed no clear error in determining Wessel was competent for trial even though she denied his attempted jury waiver. It further noted that it found nothing in the record to indicate the district court did not consider and carefully weigh defense counsel’s position.

“To the contrary, she took him very seriously. She entertained doubts. She ordered multiple evaluations and competency hearings. She assessed and re-assessed. Again, we see no clear error,” Manion wrote.

“We commend Chief Judge Pratt. She exercised great patience, took many steps to assess Wessel’s competency and respect his rights, and demonstrated open-mindedness all along the case’s long, zig-zag path.”

The court closed with a footnote saying, “Wessel has our sympathy.”

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