Impaired Judge and Incompetent Man's Plea to a Death Sentence
Ronald Deere has been described in many ways, none of which are positive. Murderer. Incompetent. Suffering from either multiple personality disorder or borderline personality disorder. A man with a death wish.
The late Judge Fred Metheny, who presided over his 1982 trial, sentencing, and resentencing, barely fares better, being described as eccentric, incompetent, senile, and suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's.
Deere once promised his then-girlfriend that if she broke up with him, he would murder her family. She did. And he did, killing her brother-in-law and two nieces. He then informed his lawyer that he wished to plead guilty and would rather face death than a life sentence. He even instructed his lawyer to present no mitigating evidence in the death penalty phase of the trial.
The California Supreme Court reversed the death sentence and remanded for resentencing, this time requiring mitigating evidence. The outcome was the same.
By the 1990s, Deere was having second thoughts about his death wish and began a series of appeals that has stretched to the present day. The issues before the panel included whether Deere’s counsel should’ve requested a competency hearing in 1982 and whether Judge Metheny was himself competent at the time of sentencing.
Mentally Ill? Maybe. Competent? Definitely.
A mental health expert that examined Deere in 1982 found that he suffered from borderline personality disorder, suicidal behavior, and a bad habit of self-mutilation. While he was able to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings around him, Dr. William Jones stopped short of evaluating competency, per Deere’s counsel’s instructions.
Dr. Tommy Bolger, who worked for the prison system, recognized the personality disorder, yet felt that he could cooperate with counsel.
The Ninth Circuit held that even if Deere’s lawyer provided ineffective assistance for not requesting a competency hearing, there was no reasonable probability that Deere would’ve been found incompetent. Accounts from his then-counsel, and the mental health experts, provide insufficient support for the notion that he lacked “capacity to appreciate his options and make a rational choice”.
Eccentric, Not Demented
Judge Metheny’s eccentricity, or incompetency, was apparently the worst kept secret of 1986. One lawyer’s affidavit recounted that the judge, in a civil case, “came down off the bench, shook hands with the spectators, commented on their Christianity, and dismissed the [case] in the middle of trial.” Two other affidavits provide further support for the notion that he was cognitively impaired.
The majority relies upon the state Supreme Court’s “laudatory affirmance of Judge Metheny’s supposedly impaired 1986 rulings,” in holding that he was competent to preside over the case at the time.
The dissent felt differently:
“It is an open secret that some judges stay on the bench too long. Formal procedures exist for removing senile judges, but they are rarely employed. Attorneys hesitate to challenge judges they appear before, and judges hesitate to blow the whistle on their colleagues. I am as reluctant as most judges to seek to remove a senile judge or to set aside a decision reached by such a judge. But when a man’s life is at stake, I cannot stay silent.”
- Deere v. Cullen (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Judge’s Possible Senility Didn’t Taint Sentencing (Courthouse News Service)
- Man Sues After Avoiding 5 Years of Prison Due to Sentencing Error (FindLaw’s Ninth Circuit Blog)
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