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In Re Christopher F., A Person Coming Under the Juvenile Court v. Christopher F

April 18, 2011


APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, S. Robert Ambrose, Juvenile Court Referee. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. JJ16207)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Perluss, P. J.



Christopher F. was declared a ward of the juvenile court and ordered home on probation after the court found him mentally competent and sustained a petition alleging he had made criminal threats against his high school dean. On appeal Christopher contends the court committed prejudicial error by failing to appoint the director of the regional center for the developmentally disabled (regional center director), as required by Penal Code section 1369, subdivision (a).*fn1 He also contends the court focused on the wrong factors in determining his mental competence and, as a result, its finding is not supported by substantial evidence. We affirm.


1. The Petition

A petition was filed pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 on July 14, 2008 alleging Christopher had threatened his high school dean, Michael Jones, in violation of section 422. According to the petition, on May 13, 2008 Christopher was escorted by his one-on-one teaching assistant to Jones's office because his cell phone rang in class. While at the office, Christopher said aloud he was "gonna kill that motherfucker." He wrote "Compton 70's, BBK, LCC, Fuck Jones, Jones will die" and "Fuck Jones, He will die" on his hands. He also wrote a threatening letter that said, "Fuck you, Jones. You will fucking die and go to Hell, Compton 70's, LCC, LCC, thug life for life homeys. Fuck Jones, Jones will die." The letter was given to Jones. Christopher had apparently threatened Jones before; but Jones had not taken those earlier threats seriously. This time, Jones called the police; and Christopher was detained.

2. Christopher's Evaluation and the Competency Hearing

Prior to trial Christopher's counsel declared a doubt as to his competence.*fn2 The juvenile court ordered the proceedings suspended and scheduled a competency hearing. On March 2, 2009 the court appointed a mental health expert from the USC Institute of Psychiatry to evaluate Christopher. The court did not appoint the regional center director.

The competency hearing was held on May 21, 2009 and June 2, 2009. The defense expert, Dr. Robert Rome, a licensed psychologist who had formerly worked as a psychologist for the North Los Angeles Regional Center, testified he had evaluated Christopher on December 14, 2008. Dr. Rome prepared a written report, also dated December 14, 2008, which was provided to the court and used by counsel to question Dr. Rome during his testimony.

According to Dr. Rome's report, Christopher was cooperative during the evaluation and fully participated in providing his background history. Christopher's "[i]ntellectual functioning generally appears at the borderline range relative to peers . . . . In the non-verbal visual perceptual reasoning area, Christopher shows functioning at the low end of the average range. By contrast, in the verbal comprehension areas, Christopher displays functioning at the low end of the borderline range. . . . [¶] . . . [¶] Language development appears significantly below average at the mildly deficient range relative to peers . . . . He shows difficulties in both receptive and expressive language areas." Based on the testing he had conducted, Dr. Rome believed Christopher's academic function was "significantly below age/grade level expectations at the high end of the third grade level for sight word recognition and reading comprehension areas . . . ." Nonetheless, his "[a]daptive functioning appears generally at the borderline range relative to peers . . . . Daily living skills are low average, while socialization areas are at the high end of the borderline range, and communication skills appear mildly deficient. . . . [H]e is looking forward to a job that will shortly begin at a body parts shop where he will work as a mechanic. He takes pride in his ability to work with cars."

In the summary section of his report Dr. Rome opined, "Christopher's language, learning, and other needs appear to impact issues relating to competency in court. . . . His language functioning at the retarded level interferes with his ability to follow what is going on in court and in regard to his case. These language limitations would severely restrict his ability to assist his attorney in his defense. In the view of this psychologist, Christopher is not competent to proceed in the legal matters against him at this time."

Repeating in court his conclusion that Christopher was not mentally competent to participate in the juvenile proceedings, Dr. Rome testified "it would be very, very difficult for Christopher to appropriately assist his attorney in the case because of longstanding, in fact, lifelong, language difficulties." Dr. Rome explained Christopher suffers from "mixed receptive, expressive language disorder," which affects his ability "to understand [and] comprehend what he is hearing" and "to properly seek and respond to the situation, to questions and to what is being said to him." However, Dr. Rome also testified the deficiencies he identified are not "something considered to be developmental" or "mental retardation" because Christopher was above average in nonverbal areas although his performance in verbal areas is significantly below average and roughly corresponds to the level of an eight-year-old. Moreover, during his second day of testimony, Dr. Rome ...

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