Utah man’s conviction vacated on competency grounds

Establishing a defendant’s competency to stand trial is one of the foundational elements of a valid criminal conviction.

It is well established that Utah law requires that no person who is incompetent be tried for a public offense and that trying an incompetent person constitutes a due process violation.

One Utah man recently had his conviction overturned due to competency issues. The man is Mitchell Edward Wolf and he was convicted of stalking, making a terroristic threat and electronic communication harassment of his ex-partner.

Wolf and the victim began their romantic relationship in 1980, had a child around 1990. The relationship ended in early 2007 and Wolf began making threats against the victim, his daughter, and his ex-partner’s coworkers.

The state accused Wolf of repeatedly calling his ex’s work until one of her coworkers obtained an anti-stalking injunction against him. He kept making threatening calls and eventually was charged with stalking and making terrorist threats.

Wolf attended the first day of his trial but then shot himself in the stomach before he was set to take the stand on his second day. The next morning, Wolf’s attorney informed the court of his self-inflicted gunshot wound and that he was going to be held in a VA Hospital for 30 days for a psychiatric observation.

The court characterized Wolf’s gunshot wound as a “voluntary delay tactic,” denied his attorney’s request for a continuance, and convicted him in absentia. Wolf appealed, stating that his due process rights were violated by the court’s failure to hold a competency hearing.

Under Utah law, a person is incompetent to stand trial if his mental disorder renders him or her unable to have a rational and factual understanding of their charges or criminal proceedings.

Individuals can also be declared incompetent if they are unable to consult with their attorney and to participate in the criminal proceedings against them with a reasonable degree of understanding.

In this case, an appeals court found that the failure of the trial court to conduct a competency hearing denied Wolf a fair trial because his behavior raised a bona fide doubt as to his competency. The court was also aware of Wolf’s prior bipolar diagnosis and history of suicide attempts and non-compliance with medication.

“Wolf’s history of mental illness and his possible suicide attempt raise a bona fide doubt as to his competency to stand trial,” the judges wrote. “The trial court thus erred when it refused to order a full competency hearing. We therefore reverse Wolf’s convictions and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. ”

Citation: State v. Wolf, 2014 WL 266302, No. 20110726-CA. Jan. 24, 2014.

The Salt Lake City criminal defense team at Greg Smith & Associates handles criminal law cases throughout Utah. If you or a loved one is under investigation or has been charged with crime, call us at 801-651-1512 or contact us online.

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