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Court of Appeals reverses, remands competency case to district court

Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals considered a case where a man deemed incompetent to stand trial wished to stand trial. In State of Minnesota v. Nicholas Scott Thompson, decided March 20, 2023, the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that the defendant bears the burden of proof in proving his competence.

Nicholas Thompson was charged with one count of second-degree intentional murder and two counts of second-degree unintentional felony murder for allegedly strangling his mother to death. The district court ordered a competency evaluation of Thompson based on its knowledge of defendant’s significant mental health issues. There was evidence of psychosis as well as hallucinations. Thompson participated in the competency evaluation. While the doctor who conducted the evaluation determined that Thompson understood the legal proceedings and charges against him, she ultimately concluded that Thompson was unable to rationally assist his own defense. He was deemed incompetent.

Thompson objected and requested a contested competency hearing. The state also objected to the doctor’s opinion and asked for a second competency examination. Over Thompson’s objection, the court granted the evaluation. The second evaluation yielded the same conclusions.

The district court found Thompson not competent without conducting a competency hearing. Thompson appealed, and the order was reversed and remanded. The district court held a contested competency hearing, and found that Thompson was not competent, but that decision was also reversed because Thompson was allowed to represent himself.

Thompson was civilly committed as mentally ill and dangerous. Eight written competency reports from four different examiners were submitted to the court. Seven reports found that Thompson was not competent, and the eighth did not offer a conclusion due to Thompson’s unwillingness to participate in the process.

The district court held yet another contested competency hearing, this time with Thompson being represented by an attorney. Thompson testified that he was taking his medication and doing group therapy, but he also spoke about delusion and conspiratorial beliefs. Although Thomson’s counsel stated that Thompson was able to rationally consult with counsel, the district court determined that Thompson was not competent. In its order, however, the court stated that “it is not clear where the burden lies when the defendant objects to evaluations finding him incompetent and the State takes no position on his competency.”

At oral arguments, the Court of Appeals questioned whether it was necessary to reach the question of which party holds the burden of proof in contested competency hearings. Anders Erickson, assistant public defender, represented Thompson. “This court does need to decide how the court re-weighs that evidence, because the way that the court reached its decision was to say that Mr. Thompson didn’t present enough evidence,” Erickson said. “Throughout the court’s order, it was ‘Mr. Thompson didn’t do X, Mr. Thompson didn’t do Y.’ So, if you remand and say re-evaluate the evidence, it would be difficult without any instruction regarding how to do that.”

Erickson argued that this burden should fall on the state. “Our position is that it is not the defendant making the motion,” Erickson stated. “The defendant is presumed competent. The court requested that a competency evaluation be completed. At that point, he’s still presumed competent.”

Ed Stockmeyer, assistant attorney general, represented the state. “Let’s say that appellant is right, that the state has the burden to prove incompetency. To earn relief in this case, Mr. Thompson still has to show there was some defect in the state’s presentation of that issue,” Stockmeyer maintained.

Stockmeyer said that the state met both the burden of production and persuasion. “Even if the state said, ‘We’re not taking a position,’ the burden of persuasion refers to the legal standard of the preponderance standard of review.”

The court concluded that the defendant bears the burden of proof when they assert their own competence in a contested competency proceeding. “We have explained that Minnesota law directs the district court to presume a defendant is not competent after a party questions competency and directs the party challenging that presumption to disprove it,” the court stated. It noted that “allocating the burden of proof to the party challenging the presumption in a competency proceeding is consistent with the practice of other jurisdictions.”

Erickson asked for the court to determine that Thompson was competent. “Ultimately, Mr. Thompson’s goal in this case is to have a trial. So, if this court concludes that he is competent to stand trial, and that he is rationally able to consult with his attorneys, and also understands the proceedings, which the court continuously found, then he should have this trial,” Erickson argued.

However, the court declined to determine Thompson’s competence. It reversed and remanded to the district court with instructions to conduct a new competency hearing.

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