State v. Hollars, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 18, 2020)

Defendant was charged in 2012 with several counts of second-degree sex offense and taking indecent liberties against his step-daughter, and went to trial in 2018. During the intervening six years, defendant received a total of seven mental health evaluations in which there were “fluctuating determinations” of his competency to stand trial. The defendant was initially found to be suffering from mental illness and unable to assist in his own defense, rendering him incompetent. Subsequent evaluations found him competent as long as he continued receiving treatment, but also subject to rapid decompensation if his treatment regimen or sleeping arrangements were disrupted. The last evaluation, finding defendant competent, was conducted four months prior to trial. On the third day of trial, defense counsel raised competency concerns with the court based on the defendant’s apparent confusion and vacant demeanor. During an inquiry the next morning, the trial judge concluded that the defendant’s confusion was likely due to the technical nature of an evidentiary issue being argued, and defense counsel expressed no further concerns, so the trial continued. The defendant was convicted by the jury, sentenced to 150 years in prison, and appealed. 

On review from a dissent in the Court of Appeals, the state Supreme Court held that the trial judge erred by failing to conduct another competency hearing sua sponte when faced with substantial evidence that raised a bona fide doubt about defendant’s competency. That evidence included the lapse of time since defendant’s last evaluation, his long history of mental illness and tendency for rapid deterioration, and the concerns raised by counsel during trial. Competence to stand trial is a due process right, and “the trial court must remain on guard over a defendant’s competency” during trial, even in cases where the defendant was found competent at the start of the proceedings. In light of the defendant’s history, the possibility that his confusion at trial could have been caused by his unfamiliarity with a technical legal issue “must yield to the necessity of the criminal justice system to ensure that a defendant’s due-process rights are protected.” The ruling from the Court of Appeals, which remanded the case to the trial court for a hearing to determine defendant’s competency at the time of trial, was therefore affirmed.

Justice Newby dissented, and would have held that “one isolated incident” of confusion did not create a duty to conduct further inquiry; he would have affirmed the trial court’s actions based on the judge’s in-court observations of the defendant, defense counsel’s assurance that he had no further concerns, and the pretrial determinations of competency.