By FRED HORLBECK, Senior Staff Writer
A murder convict who waived appeals of his death sentence in a bid for execution could not also waive a court review of his sentence, the S.C. Supreme Court has ruled.
Justices ruled that the court had a statutory duty to review the sentence and that Jeffrey Brian Motts, sentenced to death for murdering a cellmate, could not waive it.
The March 21 decision reconciled contrary rulings on whether a capital defendant could dispense with sentence review despite the provisions of S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-25. The statute sets forth procedures for capital sentencing.
“We had a split in authority on the waiver issue. The court had clearly said that you could waive sentence review” in a 1996 case, said Assistant Attorney General J. Anthony Mabry of Columbia.
In 2003, however, the court said it “had never decided whether you could waive sentence review. So you basically had a split,” Mabry said.
The case also tested whether Motts or any death row inmate should be entitled to a psychiatric evaluation after receiving notice of execution.
Motts’ counsel told Lawyers Weekly that he wanted a psychiatrist to visit Motts a week before execution to ensure Motts, who had suffered mental health problems throughout his life, hadn’t slid back into incompetence.
In a similar case, a death row inmate was executed 16 months after a court found him competent, said Chief Appellate Defender Robert M. Dudek of the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense.
“That’s a long time, particularly for death row inmates, which I think every one of whom I have represented had a mental problem of one kind or another,” Dudek said.
The case is State v. Motts (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-045-11, 11 pp.). Justice Donald W. Beatty wrote for a unanimous court.
The roots of the case go back to 1997, when a Spartanburg County jury convicted Motts of armed robbery and murder in the deaths of his great-aunt and great-uncle. He was sentenced to life for each murder and 25 years for armed robbery.
Eleven years later, Motts was sentenced to death for the 2005 murder of his cellmate at Perry Correctional Institution. Saying he wanted execution, Motts asked the Supreme Court to waive his appeals. Court-appointed psychiatrists concluded that Motts was competent, and a Greenville County circuit judge agreed.
The Supreme Court applied a three-step analysis. First, it determined that Motts was mentally competent to waive his appeals and that his decision was “knowing and voluntarily.”
The second and third steps involved thornier issues. The court had to decide whether Motts’ waiver included court review of his death sentence. Next, it had to rule on Dudek’s argument that Motts ought to get a psychiatric visit before execution.
Waiver of review
The court said it wanted to “definitively resolve” a conflict between its 1996 decision in State v. Torrence, 322 S.C. 475, and its 2002 conclusion in State v. Passaro, 350 S.C. 499.
In Torrence, the court had said a capital defendant could waive the § 16-3-25 review of his sentence along with his appeals. In Passaro, however, the court had said it had “never directly addressed” the issue.
The statute says sentence review “shall be in addition to direct appeal, if taken, and the review and appeal shall be consolidated for consideration. The court shall render its decision on all legal errors, the factual substantiation of the verdict, and the validity of the sentence.”
“As we interpret § 16-3-25, the General Assembly contemplated a defendant’s waiver of a direct appeal; however, it made no such provision as to this court’s mandatory sentence review. Although Motts is entitled to waive his personal right to a direct appeal, we hold that he cannot waive this court’s statutorily-imposed duty to review his capital sentence,” Justice Beatty wrote.
Justices then agreed that Motts’s death sentence was neither excessive nor disproportionate, noting that he had confessed to strangling his victim and to displaying the body in a common area of the prison.
The court declined to allow Motts a psychiatric evaluation before execution, even though psychiatrists at Motts’ competence hearing had recommended one.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of an incompetent person, but a judicial determination that a defendant is competent creates a presumption of ongoing competency, Beatty wrote, citing State v. Drayton, 270 S.C. 582 (1978).
“Although Drayton involved a determination of a defendant’s competency to stand trial, we believe it provides guidance in the instant case regarding Motts’s competency to be executed,” Beatty wrote.
Dudek, noting Motts’ history of depression, said he feared Motts could become incompetent after receiving notice of execution. If Motts then refused to see his lawyer, Dudek said, it would be difficult to know whether Motts was competent. A visit with a psychiatrist before execution would solve the problem, he said.
“I didn’t argue it should be immediately prior to execution, but in a shorter time, say within a week of his execution, he should be seen again by a psychiatrist, since he had this history of major depression, just to be sure that he hadn’t decompensated,” Dudek said.
But the court said that approach “would mean that a defendant’s competency must continue to be evaluated up to the moment of execution. Not only is an application of this interpretation impractical, it has been rejected by a few jurisdictions,” Beatty wrote.
“When would you do the evaluation? Do you do it the day before? Do you do it the week before? If you do it on Monday, and the execution is on Friday, how do you know he didn’t decompensate on Wednesday?” he said.
The court also said counsel for any death row inmate who becomes incompetent before execution could seek a stay of execution.
Case name: State v. Motts
Court: S.C. Supreme Court
Judge: Justice Donald W. Beatty
Attorneys for defendant/appellant: Chief Appellate Defender Robert M. Dudek, S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense (Columbia)
Attorneys for respondent State of South Carolina: Attorney General Alan Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Attorney General J. Anthony Mabry (all of Columbia); and Solicitor Robert Mills Ariail (Greenville)
Issue: Could a death row inmate desiring execution waive a court review of his death sentence along with his appeals? Also, should the court provide the inmate with a psychiatric evaluation prior to execution?
Holding: No on both. The court said it could not forego a proportionality review of the death sentence under § 16-3-25. It declined to provide a psychiatric review prior to execution, saying it was impractical and that there were procedures in place for counsel to seek a stay of execution on the ground that an inmate had become incompetent.
Potential impact: The decision against waiving sentence review resolved a previous split in authority. The decision to forego psychiatric review before execution retained the status quo.
Opinion digest: See Page 10.