Valuing the Vulnerable: A Proposed Approach to Cyclical Competency.

Date22 March 2022
AuthorPryde, Kirsten

United States v. Mitchell, 11 F.4th 668 (8th Cir. 2021).


    The competency evaluation system in the United States is in crisis. (1) The criminal justice system has long recognized that a criminal defendant has a right to a fair trial, and being competent to stand trial is a necessary component of that right. (2) Mental illness is increasingly prevalent in our inmate population, (3) and while mental illness and incompetence are not synonymous, the two are often correlated. (4) Unsurprisingly then, competency evaluation requests have skyrocketed in recent years. (5) But importantly, competency is not static. (6) Cycles of compensation and decompensation may require a defendant to go through the competency evaluation system multiple times before they are ever brought to trial. (7) Defendants presenting with this cyclical competency are not uncommon, and Jonathan Mitchell is a prime example. (8) Mitchell's competency to stand trial has been evaluated at least three different times at three different facilities located all around the United States. (9) When a defendant is deemed incompetent to stand trial, the government may involuntarily medicate that defendant for the purpose of rendering defendant competent to stand trial when the interests of the government outweigh the defendant's. (10) While involuntarily medicating a criminal defendant is--surprisingly --nothing new in the United States, this case marks the first time that a competent defendant has been so ordered. (11)

    From 1990 to 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States shifted from a high standard for allowing involuntary medication, which required a showing that the defendant posed a danger to fellow prison inmates and prison staff, to a more permissive standard. (12) This standard allows involuntary medication even in circumstances where the government's only interest is in a defendant's fair trial. (13) Nonetheless, this additional authority was only available where the defendant was deemed incompetent to stand trial or sufficiently dangerous at the time of the hearing. (14) Jurisprudence regarding the constitutional right of an incompetent individual to refuse unwanted medical treatment generally is murky, and the right of an incompetent prisoner to do so is even more suspect. (15) Courts have never diminished or overruled the constitutional right of a competent individual, however--even when that individual is a prisoner or detainee--to refuse unwanted medical treatment. (16) Nevertheless, in United States v. Mitchell, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit permitted the involuntary medication of a defendant who was competent at the time of the relevant hearing. (17) This holding defeats the rationale expressed in the governing precedent of Sell v. United States and impermissibly intrudes on the defendant's right, protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, to be free from bodily intrusion by the government. (18)

    Part II of this note introduces the case of Johnathan Mitchell, a man currently awaiting trial on a robbery charge in an Iowa prison. Part III analyzes information from several academic disciplines to present the complex framework associated with involuntary medication administration. Part IV breaks down the Eighth Circuit's decision in the instant case. Finally, Part V proposes a new procedure for courts to undertake in such a circumstance that is more narrowly tailored to the interests at stake.


    Jonathan Dewayne Mitchell has spent the last eleven years of his life moving through the criminal justice system because of a single incident. (19) Six of those years have been spent in cycles of competency and decompensation. (20) Due to the complex procedural history in this case, Section A will discuss the facts giving rise to the charged offense, and Section B will discuss the case's lengthy procedural history, leading to the Eighth Circuit's decision.

    1. The Underlying Incident

      Catherine Stickley was driving a cab through the dark streets of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on April 29, 2011. (21) That night would be Stickley's last. (22) Johnathan Dewayne Mitchell, out on bond on an unrelated assault charge, was the only named suspect in Stickley's homicide and was quickly charged in state court for first-degree murder and first-degree robbery. (23) According to Mitchell's testimony, he came upon Stickley's body lying outside her cab. (24) At trial, he admitted that he did take money from the scene to buy crack cocaine but insisted that she was already dead when he found her. (25) The prosecution told a very different story, claiming that Mitchell needed money for drugs, and he killed Stickley to get it. (26) According to their version of events, Mitchell brutally stabbed Stickley eighteen times in the neck and head, then stole money from her, leaving behind a bloody fingerprint inside the cab. (27) Ultimately, Mitchell was acquitted of both charges in 2013. (28)

      In 2016, however, federal prosecutors brought new charges relating to the same series of events. A grand jury indicted Johnathan Mitchell for "robbery affecting commerce" in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. (29) If convicted, Mitchell could serve up to twenty years in prison. (30)

    2. History of (In)Competence

      Though federal prosecutors first charged Mitchell in 2016, he has not yet had his day in court. (31) Still, he has remained in custody due to persistent questions regarding his competency to stand trial. (32) Johnathan Mitchell has a history of challenges associated with mental illness. (33) He carries a dual diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia; his long prison stay has exacerbated both of these conditions. (34) Getting a clear picture of the procedural record regarding Mitchell's competence is difficult because many of the court orders and transcripts are sealed pending a decision on Mitchell's petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court. (35) What is known, however, reveals the complicated logistical path the court has laid for Johnathan Mitchell in the five years since his indictment.

      Mitchell's defense counsel first moved to have Mitchell's competency evaluated three months after his indictment in July 2016. (36) After a thirty-day evaluation period, Judge John Stuart Scoles, a magistrate judge on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, found Mitchell incompetent to stand trial, and Mitchell was taken to the Bureau of Prisons' ("BOP") medical facility in Springfield, Missouri, for competency restoration. (37) In July 2017, a psychologist at that facility reported to the court that Mitchell's competency had been restored, and. Judge Scoles deemed Mitchell competent to stand trial in September 2017. (38) Two months later, however, defense counsel again moved to have Mitchell's competency evaluated, reporting that Mitchell had begun engaging in "unusual behavior" at his new prison facility. (39) After another evaluation period, during which Mitchell was moved between various facilities within the BOP, in February of 2018, Judge Scoles again found Mitchell incompetent to stand trial. (40) A BOP psychologist opined that the time in transit between these facilities had contributed to Mitchell's further decompensation during this evaluation period. (41) After being deemed incompetent for a second time, Mitchell was committed to a different BOP medical facility in Butner, North Carolina, for competency restoration. (42) In July and October of 2018, BOP-Butner psychiatrists submitted reports to the court regarding Mitchell's status, finding that Mitchell remained incompetent throughout 2018. (43) In March 2019, the federal prosecutor in Mitchell's case requested a hearing under Sell v. United States to determine whether the court would authorize the involuntary administration of medication to restore Mitchell's competency. (44) On June 25, 2019, Judge Scoles held a competency hearing in which, upon hearing the evidence, he recommended that the United States' motion to involuntarily medicate Mitchell be denied because the Government had failed to prove it was necessary. (45) The District Court adopted Judge Scoles's recommendation in October 2019. (46)

      In November 2019, the court received another report from a psychiatrist at BOP-Butner claiming that Mitchell was competent to stand trial but that his continued competency was contingent on his willingness to take his prescribed medications. (47) Mitchell's voluntary compliance level at the November 2019 report was approximately 60-65%. (48) On December 18, 2019, Michell was transferred from Butner, North Carolina, to the Linn County jail in Iowa, in one continuous fifteen-and-a-half-hour drive to attend a competency hearing. (49) On January 2, 2020, Mitchell was deemed competent to stand trial based on the November 2019 psychologist's report. (50)

      Soon after, however, Mitchell's defense counsel requested a third competency hearing, as Mitchell's condition had rapidly deteriorated during his stay in the Linn County Jail. (51) On February 6, 2020, Mitchell was moved from the jail in Iowa to a federal detention facility in Seattle, Washington, for another thirty-day evaluation period. (52) In March, one of the psychologists at the facility reported to the court that Mitchell was still experiencing psychotic symptoms, evidenced by his poor hygiene, fluctuating medication compliance, and hoarding tendencies. (53) During this stay, Mitchell was voluntarily compliant with the administration of his daily medications sixty-two percent of the time. (54) Based on this report and "past forensic evaluations," Judge Scoles once again found Mitchell incompetent to stand trial on April 17, 2020, and Mitchell returned to BOP-Butner for competency restoration on July 28, 2019. (55) By September 2020, Mitchell had attained an overall compliance rate of 76.6% at the facility, and, on October...

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