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United States District Court, Northern District of California

March 27, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Susan Illston, United States District Judge.



This matter is now before the court for consideration of the merits of Darrell Mooring's pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus concerning his 1996 conviction. For the reasons discussed below, the petition will be denied.


A. Case History

Darrell Mooring pled guilty and was convicted in the Contra Costa County Superior Court in 1996 of robbery and sale of cocaine. The guilty plea resulted in a considerable benefit to Mooring, as he had been charged with these two crimes and was alleged to have suffered two prior convictions, which exposed him to a potential sentence of 66 years' imprisonment. Pursuant to the plea bargain, Mooring was sentenced to twelve years in state prison. He unsuccessfully sought a certificate of probable cause to appeal his conviction, thus ending any possibility of direct review of his conviction. He filed several unsuccessful petitions for writ of habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court.

Mooring filed this action in January 2000. His federal habeas petition asserts two claims for relief. First, he appears to allege that he was denied due process because the court failed to hold a competency hearing during the 1996 proceedings. Second, he alleges that he was deprived of due process because he was incompetent at the time he entered his guilty plea in 1996.

B. The Mental Competency Evidence

Although he was originally represented by counsel in the 1996 proceedings, Mooring's motion to represent himself was granted.*fn1 The court sua sponte ordered an evaluation by a psychiatrist in September 1995. Later, new counsel was appointed to represent Mooring. That new counsel had Mooring evaluated a second time by a psychologist in January 1996.

The issues in the present case concern Mooring's mental competency in the 1996 proceedings. The evidence concerning his mental competency comes largely from the reports following the two mental evaluations described below.

1. Dr. Noonan's Report

The first evaluation was conducted by psychiatrist Charles Noonan, who evaluated Mooring and sent him a letter reporting his findings on September 29, 1995. Dr. Noonan apparently was appointed by the court acting sua sponte to determine if Mooring was competent in the early 1970s when he entered guilty pleas in prior cases. The parties suggest that Dr. Noonan was also supposed to evaluate Mooring's competency as of 1995, but Dr. Noonan's report contains no finding on that topic, making it highly doubtful that he was asked to provide an evaluation of Mooring's competency as of 1995.

Dr. Noonan questioned the validity of Mooring's prior convictions in 1970 and 1973 because it appeared that in the early 1970s Mooring was "essentially illiterate," had only a "marginal capacity to process information," and had an IQ in 1974 of 74. Sept, 29, 1995 letter from Charles Noonan, M.D. to Darrell Mooring, attached as Exh. A to Respondent's Exh. 1 (hereinafter "Noonan letter"), p. 6. Dr. Noonan explained how Mooring had improved his understanding of things over the last couple of decades. Mooring had told Dr. Noonan that in the 1970-1976 period, he "gradually learned how to use words and put them into sentences, and then be able to understand what was going on." Id. 5. Mooring also told Dr. Noonan "that in 1978, when he was housed in San Quentin, he was a floor sweeper at that time, and ran into another inmate by the name of Stanley Wallace, who was a law clerk, and used to talk to him about law cases that were in the books, and the defendant relates that it was at this time that he felt he began to take a genuine interest in a legal career, and began to work on reading materials. The defendant relates that he feels that at the present time, `This time in jail, I feel strongly that the district attorney, Mr. McTighe, is upset at me over my helping these two other inmates with their murder beefs with my knowledge and with my legal background, now.'" Id. Dr. Noonan opined that Mooring "presents a rather unusual case for having been essentially illiterate, and having a marginal capacity to process information, and to effectively participate in his defenses in prior cases that date back to the 1970s." Id. at 6. Dr. Mooring recognized that Mooring's life history was far from perfect. For example, Mooring abused alcohol and drugs, his mother used drugs while pregnant with him, his mother left him (albeit with a kind and loving woman) while she was in prison, he was a street criminal since youth, and he had a poor education.

2. Dr. Hyman's Evaluation

Mooring was evaluated about three months later by psychologist Edward Hyman. Dr. Hyman had been retained by Mooring's attorney to determine if Mooring was competent to enter the guilty pleas in the 1970 and 1973 cases. There is no evidence that Dr. Hyman was asked to evaluate Mooring's competency as of 1996. There is no indication that Dr. Hyman actually interviewed Mooring; rather, his declaration indicates that he conducted several tests on Mooring on January 22, 1996 (i.e., Rorschach Method of Psychodiagnostic Assessment, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Bender Visual Motor Gestalt Test and Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised). Declaration of Dr. Edward Hyman, attached as Exh. B to Respondent's Exh. 1 (hereinafter "Hyman Decl."), p. 1. Dr. Hyman's declaration also does not mention any interview of Mooring or any review of his records.

Dr. Hyman opined that "Mooring's cognitive processes are severely disordered, reflecting prenatal organicity, most likely maternal substance addiction during gestation. His cognitive deficit involved narrowing and simplifying stimulus fields so pervasively that the processing of information is universally disordered, disorganized and distorted. The quality of his information processing is so lacking in cognitive complexity that it is commonly observed only among very young children and older individuals with profound cognitive deficits." Id. at 1-2. Dr. Hyman also opined that Mooring was "largely incapable of judgments as his cognitive disorder renders him incapable of arriving at firm decisions in all but routine matters." Id. at 2. Mooring's "cognitive functions become thoroughly dysfunctional" when he is "confronted by situational stress." Id. at 3. Dr. Hyman noted that the test results indicated that Mooring's cognitive status was far more disordered in the early 1970s than in 1996, probably because he acquired marginal coping skills in the intervening decades. Id. Dr. Hyman opined that Mooring should not have been allowed to stand trial in the early 1970s because he was incapable of participating in any significant manner in his defense and he was incapable of making an informed decision regarding his defense or plea. Id. at 4. As noted above, Dr. Hyman offered no opinion about Mooring's competency in 1996.


A. Standard of Review

This court may entertain a petition for writ of habeas corpus "in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The petition may not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court's adjudication of the claim: "(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); see Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 120 S.Ct. 1495 (2000).

Where, as here, there is no reasoned decision from any state court, a review of the record is the only means of deciding whether the state court's decision was objectively reasonable. See Greene v. Lambert, 288 F.3d 1081, 1088 (9th Cir. 2002); Delgado v. Lewis, 223 F.3d 976, 982 (9th Cir. 2000). When confronted with such a decision, a federal court should conduct "an independent review of the record" to determine whether the state court clearly erred in its application of controlling federal law. Id. The federal court need not otherwise defer to the state court decision under AEDPA: "A state court's decision on the merits concerning a question of law is, and should be, afforded respect. If there is no such decision on the merits, however, there is nothing to which to defer." Greene, 288 F.3d at 1089. In sum, "while we are not required to defer to a state court's decision when that court gives us nothing to defer to, we must still focus primarily on Supreme Court cases in deciding whether the state court's resolution of the case constituted an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law." Fisher v. Roe, 263 F.3d 906, 914 (9th Cir. 2001).

B. Exhaustion

Prisoners in state custody who wish to challenge collaterally in federal habeas proceedings either the fact or length of their confinement are required first to exhaust state judicial remedies, either on direct appeal or through collateral proceedings, by presenting the highest state court available with a fair opportunity to rule on the merits of each and every claim they seek to raise in federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c). The parties agree that state court remedies were exhausted for the claims in the present petition.

C. Claims

1. Failure To Hold A Competency Hearing

Due process requires a trial court to order a psychiatric evaluation or conduct a competency hearing if the court has a good faith doubt concerning the defendant's competency. See Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 378-86 (1966); Cacoperdo v. Demosthenes, 37 F.3d 504, 510 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1026 (1995). A good faith doubt about a defendant's competency arises if there is substantial evidence of incompetency. See Id. (denial of motion for psychiatric evaluation did not render trial fundamentally unfair where petitioner made single conclusory allegation he suffered from mental illness).

"Although no particular facts signal incompetence, suggestive evidence includes a defendant's demeanor before the trial court, previous irrational behavior, and available medical evaluations." See Moran v. Godinez, 57 F.3d 690, 695 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 976 (1995). Courts have generally found sufficient evidence of incompetence in cases of lengthy histories of acute psychosis and psychiatric treatment, see, e.g., Moore v. United States, 464 F.2d 663, 665 (9th Cir. 1972) (defendant repeatedly hospitalized for acute mental illness and hallucinations), or extremely erratic and irrational behavior during the course of the trial, see e.g., Tillery v. Eyman, 492 F.2d 1056, 1057-58 (9th Cir. 1974) (defendant screamed throughout nights, laughed at jury, made gestures at bailiff, disrobed in courtroom and butted his head through glass window). A lack of attentiveness before the trial judge is not enough to create a good faith doubt about a defendant's competency, however. See Williams v. Woodford, 306 F.3d 665, 704 (9th Cir. 2002). Calm behavior in the courtroom is not necessarily inconsistent with mental incompetence. See Odle v. Woodford, 238 F.3d 1084, 1088, 1089 n. 6 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 888 (2001) (finding that defendant's calm behavior in courtroom did not refute large body of clinical evidence casting doubt on his competency). The fact that no one questioned a defendant's competency during extensive pretrial and trial proceedings is entitled to substantial weight, but may not be sufficient to overcome significant doubt about his competency raised by other evidence. See id. at 1089.

Mooring has not shown that a competency hearing should have been held in his case. He has not produced evidence of anything that would have prompted a reasonable trial judge to have a bona fide doubt about his competency. The various reasons Mooring urges are considered below.

Mooring first alleges that he "requested, on more than one occasion to the sentencing court, a hearing on his mental capacity. At the sentencing hearing, I informed the judge that I did not comprehend what was happening and requested a psychiatrist's report reflecting my mental capacity." Petition, p. 6. A person saying that he is incompetent is much like a person saying he is choking — if the person can say that he is, he probably isn't. Cf. Cacoperdo, 37 F.3d at 510 (single conclusory allegation of unspecified mental illness not enough to require a hearing). When Mooring told the trial court that he might not be competent, he signaled he knew enough about the proceedings to know that calling into question his mental state might be a way to avoid prosecution or punishment.

In an assertion related to his first assertion, Mooring next suggests that he was incompetent because at the time of his sentencing he was illiterate and had a low level of intelligence. Traverse, p. 2; see also Traverse, at Mooring Decl. ("I did informed [sic] the sentencing court that I was having problems holding my attention and understanding my lawyer;" "I was mentally disorganized at the sentencing hearing — emotionally confused because I was over whelm [sic] with the pressure from my attorney which had place me in a state of distress"). Mooring's behavior contradicts his assertions and indicates that he understood the 1996 proceedings and was able to assist in his defense. There is considerable evidence that Mooring was better than the average prisoner in litigation skills. He told Dr. Noonan that he had become more learned in the law since the 1970s. He also told Dr. Noonan he had been providing legal assistance to two other inmates. See Noonan letter, p. 5. Mooring's writ writing activities suggest that Mooring understood legal proceedings in general and his in particular. Mooring also filed a motion to strike the prior convictions, evidencing his correct understanding that the key to obtaining a shorter sentence was to have the prior convictions set aside. Mooring has filed several state and federal pleadings during and since the 1996 proceedings demonstrating his understanding of the legal process. These filings are nowhere near the low quality one would expect from a prisoner who had an IQ bordering on that of mental retardation. For example, Mooring's handwritten declaration supporting his handwritten request for a certificate of probable cause dated September 20, 1996 is simply not the work of an incompetent. See Exh. A to Respondent's Motion to Dismiss filed June 28, 2000. Other examples of Mooring's filings evidencing an understanding of the proceedings include Respondent's Exhibits 1, 2, and 3; Mooring's habeas petition and other filings in this action; and Mooring's filings in Mooring v. Duncan, C 98-2289 SI. This evidence that Mooring understood his particular legal proceedings and the legal process in general is highly relevant and weighs strongly against a finding that he was incompetent or appeared incompetent to the state court judge because his competency claim is essentially a claim that he was not intelligent enough to understand the proceedings rather than a claim that he had a mental illness such as schizophrenia or psychosis that impeded his otherwise normal ability to understand the legal proceedings.

He next asserts that the fact that the judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation and the fact that his own appointed counsel obtained a separate psychological evaluation evidenced that he was in fact incompetent. See Traverse, p. 4. His reasoning is unpersuasive. The record before this court indicates that the court ordered the psychiatrist to evaluate him to check his competency in the early 1970s rather than for the 1996 proceeding. Even if Mooring was correct that the judge ordered the evaluation because of concerns about Mooring's competency in 1996, the fact that the court proceedings continued after the court-ordered psychiatric evaluation was performed suggests that the court did not think Dr. Noonan's evaluation called Mooring's competency into question. His attorney did arrange for a separate psychological evaluation but only to challenge the 1970 and 1973 convictions to avoid a hefty sentence-enhancement in 1996. (The record shows that his attorney was attempting to show that he was not competent in 1970 and 1973 when he pled guilty to offenses in those years.) There is no evidence that his counsel thought Mooring currently incompetent when she sought the evaluation in 1996. The fact that the attorney never told the court that she doubted Mooring's competency weighs against finding that there was evidence that should have led the court to have a good faith doubt about Mooring's competency. See Odle v. Woodford, 238 F.3d at 1089.

Mooring further contends that his "unusual demeanor in the courtroom and his irrational behavior" prompted the court to appoint a new attorney for him, and that the new attorney sought mental testing and an evaluation of Mooring. Traverse, p. 4. His conclusory allegations of an "unusual demeanor" and "irrational behavior" are not sufficient to show that he exhibited behavior that evidenced incompetence. These two bland allegations, devoid of any details of questionable behavior, stand in stark contrast to the evidence in other cases that was found to be enough to demonstrate the need for a competency inquiry. See Cacoperdo, 37 F.3d at 510 (denial of motion for psychiatric evaluation did not render trial fundamentally unfair where petitioner made single conclusory allegation he suffered from mental illness); cf. Odle v. Woodford, 238 F.3d at 1087-89 (granting writ due to failure to conduct competency hearing, where reasonable jurist would have had good faith doubt of defendant's competency in light of a history of massive lobectomy, followed by severe personality change and series of psychiatric hospitalizations; a suicide attempt while in jail awaiting trial; and expert testimony describing defendant's extensive brain damage); United States v. Loyola-Dominguez, 125 F.3d 1315, 1318 (9th Cir. 1997) (due process required a hearing to ascertain whether defendant was competent to stand trial where he attempted suicide on eve of trial).

The strongest evidence in favor of Mooring's position is Dr. Hyman's report. However, as discussed earlier, that report did not actually opine that Mooring was incompetent to stand trial or plead guilty and it was prepared with a focus on Mooring's competency as of 1970 and 1973, not as of 1996. Moreover, Dr. Hyman's report must be considered not in a vacuum but in the context of the case. Specifically, the report stood next to Dr. Noonan's report, which indicated that Mooring was not incompetent. Because neither Dr. Noonan nor Dr. Hyman suggested that Mooring's mental abilities were deteriorating (and to the contrary, both indicated that Mooring had much improved since the earlier 1970s), one cannot say that the more recent report by Dr. Hyman was more valuable than the report by Dr. Noonan. Dr. Noonan's report also had the advantage of being based on a personal interview instead of just being an interpretation of standardized test results.

Dr. Noonan's report explained that Mooring was of low level intelligence and Mooring thought he had been short-changed in earlier criminal proceedings because he did not understand what had happened, but thereafter took steps to become better educated about the law. Dr. Noonan's report would dispel any notion that Mooring was incompetent. Although Dr. Noonan did not opine whether Mooring was competent at the time of the 1996 proceedings, he made several observations inconsistent with a determination that Mooring was then incompetent. First, Mooring had told Dr. Noonan "that he has never had any type of psychiatric evaluation, treatment, or contacts with any other mental health professionals throughout his life. He has never had a psychiatric hospitalization." Noonan letter, p. 4. Second, Mooring was neatly groomed and functioned normally. "He was generally seen to be calm throughout the interview and cooperative. He responded to all questions in a straightforward and understandable fashion with no incidents, no development of agitation, upset, need to prematurely terminate the interview, or any inordinate resistances, pauses or refusals to answer questions at any time. The defendant was seen to not act in any unusual or bizarre fashion. He was easily able to understand all questions posed to him and respond back in a likewise fashion. The defendant was able to articulate a sophisticated vocabulary, and was seen to be open and honest in relating his history, and was seen to be of average to above average intelligence overall." Id. at 4-5. Third, Mooring had come to the realization that he had not been appropriately treated in the 1970 and 1973 criminal proceedings and wanted to change things in the 1996 proceedings. Fourth, Mooring wanted to better himself educationally and to that end had taken management stress courses, read self-help books, and joined a "Gavel Club." Id. at 3. Dr. Noonan did note, however, that Mooring stated he continued to have trouble with reading, writing, spelling, math, and remembering what he said in court. Id. Fifth, Mooring had life goals, e.g., to reunite his family, get a job in the paralegal field, buy a home and be happy. Id. Sixth, Mooring enjoyed recreational activities (i.e., exercising, reading, good movies, listening to intellectual people speak, and learning about current political events). Id. Dr. Noonan's report supported a finding that Mooring was competent, rather than incompetent, during the 1996 proceedings.

When considering a claim that the trial court should have held a competency hearing, the habeas court considers only the information that was before the state trial court. See Amaya-Ruiz v. Stewart, 121 F.3d 486, 489 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 1130 (1998); United States v. Lewis, 991 F.2d 524, 527 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 878 (1993). Mooring simply has not shown that there were facts before the state court that should have prompted it to hold a competency hearing. Considering the information before the court — i.e., the reports from Dr. Noonan and Dr. Hyman, and Mooring's self-professed doubt about his own competency — there was not substantial evidence of present incompetence. The state court cannot be faulted for failing to hold a competency hearing based on such a record.

2. Mooring's Competency

A criminal defendant may not be tried or waive his right to counsel or plead guilty unless he is competent at the time. See Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 396 (1993). The conviction of a defendant while legally incompetent violates due process. See Cacoperdo v. Demosthenes, F.3d at 510. The test for competency to plead guilty and to stand trial is whether the defendant "has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding — whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." Boag v. Raines, 769 F.2d 1341, 1343 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960)), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1085 (1986); Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. at 396-99.

Requiring that a criminal defendant be competent has a modest aim: It seeks to ensure that he has the capacity to understand the proceedings and to assist counsel. While psychiatrists and scholars may find it useful to classify the various kinds and degrees of competence, and while States are free to adopt competency standards that are more elaborate than the Dusky formulation [i.e., that the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and that he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him], the Due Process Clause does not impose these additional requirements.
Id. at 402.

Mooring has failed to demonstrate that he was incompetent during the 1996 proceedings. His statements to Dr. Noonan demonstrated that he had a rational understanding of the proceedings against him and was able to assist in his defense. He expressed disappointment at the way he had been treated in the cases in the 1970s, had thereafter become better versed in the law and believed he understood what was happening in the 1996 proceedings. Dr. Noonans report simply does not support a determination that Mooring was incompetent in 1996.

Dr. Hyman's report is more favorable to Mooring's current position, but does not demonstrate that Mooring was incompetent or should be allowed an evidentiary hearing to attempt to develop evidence of incompetency. Dr. Hyman's report is of limited value because Dr. Hyman did not interview Mooring before preparing it, but instead based the report solely on Mooring's performance on standardized intelligence and personality tests. As a result of the limited information on which Dr. Hyman's opinion was based, his report provides far less information about Mooring's actual behavior than Dr. Noonan's report does. Dr. Hyman did opine that Mooring's cognitive ability was currently impaired, but he did not opine whether Mooring was actually incompetent. One can read Dr. Hyman's report and still not have an answer to the key question of whether Mooring had "some minimal understanding of the proceedings against him." see United States v. Hernandez, 203 F.3d 614, 620 n. 8 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing Godinez, 509 U.S. at 396).

The cumulative evidence in the record does not demonstrate Mooring's actual incompetence. There was nothing unusual about the current crimes of robbery and drug possession. There was no evidence of any outburst or bizarre behavior by Mooring in or out of court. Mooring made a good choice to plead guilty to get a 12-year sentence rather than a 66-year sentence. There was no evidence Mooring had any history of treatment for mental illness or that he was medicated or in need of medication. There was no evidence that his counsel thought Mooring was incompetent in the 1996 proceedings. There was evidence that Mooring had been filing papers adequately arguing his legal position. There was evidence that a psychiatrist had interviewed him and noted that he behaved appropriately during the interview, engaged in a normal conversation, and had some self-reflection skills. There was evidence that Mooring realized that a mental incompetency finding would work to his benefit in legal proceedings. Against the foregoing was evidence that Mooring had probably not been competent during the 1970 and 1973 proceedings, that he scored poorly on standardized intelligence and personality tests (indicating he had severely disordered cognitive processes), that he had abused alcohol and drugs, that he had a history of functional illiteracy, that he had a troubled childhood, and that he told the court he doubted his competency. Considering all this information, there is no doubt that Mooring had sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and that he had a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. See Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. at 402. Mooring was not incompetent during the 1996 proceedings.

The state, court's rejection of Mooring's due process claims was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Mooring is not entitled to the writ.


For the foregoing reasons, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is DENIED. The clerk shall close the file.


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