Holton: Competency hearing unnecessary

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Shelbyville man on death row for killing his sons and their sister has told a federal appeals court that he doesn't need a hearing on whether he knows what he's doing, thereby subduing a Knoxville attorney's attempt to prevent the inmate's execution.

But that's not enough to allow Tennessee to reschedule the execution of Daryl Holton because he has not altered his claim that he was convicted on murder charges and is on death row because his attorneys did a poor job of defending him at trial in the Bedford County Courthouse.

Holton shot the four children in an auto repair shop, explaining to police later that they'd be better off dead than living with his ex-wife.

Holton's hand-written letter to three judges with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is dated Sept. 21 from his cell at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville where he was scheduled for execution on the morning of Sept. 19.

His execution that day was stopped by an order from the appeals court in Cincinnati, and while Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers and other lawyers on his staff sought to overturn that decision within 12 hours of the execution time, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the state's request.

There are now two legal moves which attempt to keep the execution from being rescheduled.

One was by Stephen Ferrell of the Federal Defender Services in Knoxville. He claimed to represent Holton and sought a "full evidentiary hearing" on Holton's competency to establish that Holton's mental condition is such that he should not be executed.

The other legal move to prevent Holton's execution was his own petition to the U.S. Supreme Court which was granted and sent back to the appeals court in Cincinnati where the issue is whether his defense team was ineffective at trial.

With two separate legal issues, the appeals court sent Holton a request within its order stopping the execution and a schedule for legal briefs on the issues.

Holton enumerated those three parts of the appeals court order and noted that it had "requested that I personally advise the court as to whether it is my intent to pursue the instant appeal, and if so, whether pro-se [on his own behalf] or through counsel."

The "instant appeal" is from Ferrell asking for a hearing on Holton's mental condition.

"I cannot, at this time, in good faith, pursue the instant appeal filed by the Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee Inc. that challenges my own competency to forego federal habeas [literally, the body, or in this case, the Holton's mind] review of their claims," Holton wrote.

While abandoning, "at this time," one avenue to resist execution on the grounds that he doesn't know what he's doing, Holton has referred to his position on whether his lawyers served him well.

"Additionally, in the context and present posture of my own filing in the U.S. Supreme Court," he wrote to the appeals court judges, "I cannot complain about the procedure employed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee in assessing whether 'reasonable cause' had been established so as to require a full evidentiary hearing on my competency."

Holton thanks the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals for consulting with him, and he indicates an awareness that the situation is unusual.

"I recognize the opportunity as rare and do not intend to abuse it," he wrote.

In Knoxville, Ferrell acknowledged that Holton's letter, while polite, is somewhat difficult to understand.

"His first part is very logical," Ferrell said. "He does not want to be on board with our appeal, because it has to do with his competency. The second part in his letter is more difficult."

It was clear to Ferrell that there are two legal maneuvers at the appeals court and that the judges and Holton want to do one thing at a time.

"I think he wants the Supreme Court appeal considered as he filed it" to challenge his lawyers' work during the trial, Ferrell said. "And [he] will want to see what the Supreme Court does before deciding what to do next.

"I kind of read it as he's wanting to let the Supreme Court decide, but I don't know whether that reading of his letter is any more accurate than anyone else's," Ferrell said.

Ferrell and other attorneys in his office filed a 40-page brief asking the appeals court for a full hearing on Holton's competency, contending that it should be conducted in in the District Court in Knoxville.

The 40-page brief also asks that since Holton asked the Supreme Court to decide issues -- that were sent back to Cincinnati -- those issues on the quality of Holton's representation ought to be be reviewed in Knoxville, too.

Regardless of where the issues are considered, it would appear that Holton wants to challenge lawyers' work first, while Ferrell suggests that it's more appropriate to first have a full competency hearing.

That Holton believes he's competent is problematic for Alex Wiefendanger, associate director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing.

"Someone who's diagnosed with mental illness ... should not be making legal decisions," Wiefendanger said.

As for the letter, "This says to me that ... he thinks he is competent, so he isn't pursuing the current appeal from his defenders on the competency question, but that he does still have other issues he wants to pursue.

"I think it does demonstrate that he is not making rational decisions and that he does not properly understand the legal process," Wiefendanger said.

Meanwhile, State Attorney General Paul Summers' spokeswoman, Sharon Curtis-Flair, said Summers' office will defer comment until it files its own brief in Holton's case, expected today.