State v. Sander, 2021-NCCOA-566, 865 S.E.2d 358 (Oct. 19, 2021)

The defendant was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder at trial in Wake County. The defendant had a history of mental illness and had been involuntarily committed in the past. After he was charged with the murders, the defendant was observed by a forensic psychiatrist at a mental hospital.  While the defendant initially exhibited some bizarre symptoms—some of which the treatment team believed to be evidence of malingering—his behavior improved after some time. Defense counsel arranged for a formal competency evaluation, which determined the defendant to be capable of standing trial. Once the defendant was returned to county jail from the hospital, he began accusing the lead defense attorney in his case of conspiring to have him convicted and making other fantastic allegations. A second competency evaluation was ordered. The evaluator found that, while the defendant was making “poor choices” and exhibiting “self-sabotaging” behavior, the defendant remained capable of rational thinking and was competent to stand trial.

Prior to trial, a third competency evaluation was sought, but defense attorneys conceded they had no new evidence in support of the request. The request was denied. Throughout jury selection, the defendant repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with outbursts and accusations over the course of several days and had to be shackled. He also sought to disqualify his lead defense attorney (which the trial court denied). Prior to opening statements, defense counsel notified the judge that they were not sure whether to give an opening statement, as the defendant had refused to work with them to decide on strategy. After a recess and an opportunity for the defendant to consult with defense counsel, defense counsel gave an opening statement. The defendant’s interruptions continued during the State’s case-in-chief, and he had to be removed from the courtroom. The defendant was convicted of all three murders.

During the penalty phase, defense evidence showed that the defendant could be exaggerating his mental illness or malingering, or that he was in fact doing so. The jury recommended life imprisonment, and the court ordered the defendant to serve consecutive life without parole terms for each count.

The record was not clear on whether the defendant gave oral notice of appeal in open court following the judgment, and a written notice of appeal filed by trial counsel failed to identify the file numbers of two of the charges, among other defects. In its discretion, the Court of Appeals granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari to review the matter.  

(1) The trial court did not err in failing to sua sponte order a third competency evaluation based on the defendant’s behavior at trial. The second competency evaluation was performed to address concerns that the defendant was unable to work with his attorneys, and it determined that the defendant had the capacity to work with his attorneys if he so desired. The beliefs and behaviors of the defendant leading to the second evaluation were the same behaviors he exhibited at trial and did not warrant sua sponte intervention by the trial court. According to the court:

“. . . Defendant’s refusal to work with his counsel at trial, his belief he was being framed by them, and his aggression in the courtroom was not new conduct. Instead, these behaviors were the subject of a previous evaluation that determined him competent. As such, these facts do not suggest a change in competency warranting a sua sponte hearing under our caselaw. Sander Slip op. at 17.

Further, the defendant’s behaviors (however odd) indicated that he understood the allegations and evidence against him and showed that he meant to deny the charges. There was therefore no error in failing to sua sponte order a third competency evaluation.

(2) The defendant claimed that his attorneys struck certain jurors that he wanted to keep and argued that the record showed an impasse between the defendant and his attorneys on this point. The court disagreed that an impasse between counsel and the defendant was apparent on the cold record. The court dismissed this claim without prejudice, allowing the defendant to pursue this issue via a motion for appropriate relief if he desires.