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

The defendant was on trial for four counts of embezzlement when she attempted to commit suicide by ingesting 60 Xanax tablets during an evening recess. The defendant was found unresponsive, taken to the hospital, and involuntarily committed for evaluation and treatment. The trial was postponed until the following week, at which time the trial judge reviewed medical records and conferred with counsel before ruling that the defendant was voluntarily absent by her own actions and the trial could continue without her. The defendant was convicted by the jury, sentenced when she returned to court at a later date, and appealed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to conduct a competency hearing sua sponte before declaring her voluntarily absent. A divided Court of Appeals found no error, since the trial court is only required to examine competency sua sponte if there is substantial evidence before it that raises a bona fide doubt about the defendant’s competence. Based on a review of the record as a whole, the appellate court was not persuaded that the defendant’s suicide attempt was a result of mental illness rather than a voluntary act intended to avoid facing prison.

The state Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. The higher court concluded that by “skipping over the issue of competency and simply assuming that defendant’s suicide attempt was a voluntary act that constituted a waiver of her right to be present during her trial” the trial court and the Court of Appeals majority had “put the cart before the horse.” In non-capital trials, a defendant may waive his or her right to be present, but the defendant must be competent to do so. In this case, there was substantial evidence before the court that raised a bona fide doubt about the defendant’s competence. In addition to the suicide attempt itself, the court was aware that the defendant had been involuntarily committed due to a high risk of self-harm, and the court reviewed additional medical records regarding the defendant’s history of mood disorders and prescribed medications. The trial court began an inquiry into defendant’s competence by ordering the medical records and discussing the issue with counsel, but erred when it stopped short of conducting a formal competency hearing before declaring her voluntarily absent. Finally, due to the amount of time that has elapsed since the trial, a retrospective competency hearing was no longer feasible; therefore, the conviction was vacated and the case remanded for a new trial – if the defendant is found competent.

Justice Morgan dissented, joined by Justices Newby and Ervin, and would have held that the evidence before the trial court did not raise the same doubts about the defendant’s competence as those that were present in the case precedent cited by the majority, and therefore the trial court did not err by declaring her voluntarily absent.