Failing The Chatman Test

Well, on the plus side, Demond Chatman now has a legal standard in Massachusetts courts named for him.

Unfortunately, he failed it, and as a result will continue to serve out a life sentence in prison, for a crime I believe he almost certainly did not commit.

Hey, you win some you lose some. Chatman was convicted in 2002 of murdering his mother; after three years of reporting I laid out what I could about the problems with the case in the Boston Phoenix. I have been willing to discuss any aspect of my reporting on the case with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office or Boston Police Department ever since, but they have never shown any interest in addressing any of the issues raised. Nor have they actually disputed any of my reporting, or given any explanation about the problems I pointed out.

The most I have ever gotten from any of them has been the dismissive retort of prosecutor Mark Lee, that if Chatman is innocent then why isn’t he appealing based on innocence?

The answer to that, from my perspective, is pretty much the same as my attitude about why Chatman’s trial attorney didn’t pursue or discover the things I did: our criminal justice system is pretty fucked up.

In the case of the original trial, Chatman’s court-appointed attorney was hampered by at least three things. First, as is typically the case, by the time he received the case it had been completely screwed up by decisions of detectives (and others) who from the first hours were interested only in building a case against the guy they thought did it. Second, with very limited time and resources available to him, he had to pick and choose which elements of the case to look into, based on what he thought might be the most fruitful defense strategy.

And third, Chatman’s trial attorney was hampered, in my opinion, by the fact that Chatman is a paranoid schizophrenic with borderline retardation, who could not fully grasp why things were happening, and occasionally believed that his own attorney was conspiring with the prosecutor against him, in part by reading his thoughts.

This brings me back to the appellate attorney’s strategy.

Defense attorney Ed Hayden (who, as he is the first to admit, has very little appellate experience, but hey bad luck being a poor defendant in the Commonwealth) has, for close to 15 years, pursued one reasonable strategy: arguing that Chatman was not competent to stand trial in 2002, on account of his mental illness.

It’s important to point out here that in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, if you happen to be convicted of murder in Suffolk Superior Court, your appeals are handled by the same judge who oversaw your trial. In other words, you are asking the judge to rule that she fucked up your case.

There are, to be fair, some rational and understandable reasons to proceed this way. At least, in theory. In practice I have seen it not work out so well. It seems to work better with some judges than with others.

Chatman’s trial judge was Barbara Rouse. She has a reputation, among some defense attorneys I know, of being not very reasonable or empathetic toward defendants. The actual terms they use are nastier, but we don’t need to get into any of that.

Of course, that judge doesn’t get to be the final word. In murder cases, the next step after her is also the final authority: the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). And that group — about to undergo considerable reconstitution due to three retirements — has often shown itself more willing than you might think to rule that their lower-court colleague screwed up. But, that’s not to say there isn’t institutional resistance — and, indeed, legal resistance, as there is quite a bit of deference to the trial judge built in legally, as we shall return to below.

Rouse, for these many years, has treated Hayden’s theory of Chatman’s incompetence to stand trial with utter disdain. I don’t think she would mind that characterization; she has made no secret of it. Her attitude, spoken and written plainly in so many words, is that Chatman looked fine to me during the trial, so who cares what your so-called experts say.

That has also been the attitude of Mark Lee and the DA’s office — it is worth noting that, as with the judge, in the appeal process the state is represented by the same office that prosecuted the case, and usually, as in this instance, by the same person. So, there is a great professional and psychological resistance to accepting error on that side as well.

The only player in the original trial who changes is the defendant’s attorney, because the defense bar is the only one who sees the conflict of interest and removes it. A new attorney, the thinking goes, might be somewhat more able and willing to question whether the trial attorney screwed up, than the trial attorney himself would be.

Anyway, long story short — though please bear in mind that it was a ridiculously long story during which Chatman rotted away in prison for more than a decade — Rouse, and Lee, and even at times the original trial attorney, blocked and tackled while Hayden tried to show that Chatman’s ability to assist in his own defense was impaired by the well-documented mental illness which he concealed from his trial attorney because that’s what people with affective schizoid disorder do.

Finally Hayden was able to put a big stack of material in front of Judge Rouse, asking for a hearing on the competency issue to determine whether the trial should be tossed. And Rouse, naturally, ruled that there was no need for a hearing because it was all nonsense, and thus the appeal for new trial is denied.

But on appeal of her decision, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ordered Rouse to have a hearing on it, because hey you know there actually should be some way for a guy to show that he was incompetent to stand trial, if that wasn’t caught at the time of the trial.

I wrote a little something about it a couple of years ago, when we were at that stage of things.

Rouse, openly annoyed about the SJC’s ruling, held the hearing. Then she ruled that she was right in the first place. So, back to the SJC, to see if they would actually overrule her finding on incompetence.

That decision came down this week, and the answer is no. Justice Cordy, writing for the court, referred to its previous ruling in the case as having established “the Chatman test.” This is worth noting for convicted individuals in Massachusetts:

Therein, we articulated a new framework appropriate for evaluating a defendant’s competency postverdict where the issue had not been raised at trial. Like the traditional competency test, the hallmark of a postverdict competency inquiry is the defendant’s “functional abilities,” as opposed to “the presence or absence of any particular psychiatric diagnosis.” To determine if a criminal defendant is competent, we look to (1) whether the defendant has “sufficient present ability to consult with his [or her counsel] with a reasonable degree of rational understanding,” and (2) whether he or she has “a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings”.

The newly articulated test differs from the traditional competency proceeding not in substance but in burden of proof. If the issue is raised at trial, the Commonwealth would bear the burden of establishing competence by a preponderance of the evidence. The postverdict test, on the other hand, requires that the defendant establish “by a preponderance of the evidence that the Commonwealth would not have prevailed had the issue been raised at trial,” meaning that the defendant bears the burden of establishing that, had the issue been raised before or during trial, the Commonwealth could not have proved either the first or the second prong of the competency test.

Now, remember how I said earlier that there can be considerable deference to the lower court judges built into the system?

In the Chatman test, Cordy writes, that is particularly true:

Because a postverdict motion requires a retrospective determination of the defendant’s competency, “the weighing process must necessarily place greater emphasis on evidence derived from knowledge contemporaneous with the trial.” For that reason, when the postverdict motion is heard by the same judge as presided over the trial, the “judge’s determination of competency is entitled to substantial deference ‘because the judge had the opportunity to . . . evaluate the defendant personally.'”

What he is saying here is that the trial judge, since she was there at the time, has a better grasp on Chatman’s competency than an actual psychiatric expert in determining competency, who comes around later. And, since the appellate judge is the trial judge, she should naturally want to rely first and foremost on the observations of, well, herself, from 14 years ago. So, if the appellate judge asks herself, the trial judge, whether she feels pretty confident that Chatman was competent, and if the appellate judge tells the SJC that she, the trial judge, was pretty convincing in her opinion, then really who is the SJC to second-guess that?

I’m over-snarking this, of course, but, you know, that’s how I deal with the end of the appeals process for a guy I’m convinced almost certainly committed no crime at all.

We might now actually get the chance to find out if he did. The failure for Chatman to win a new trial might, paradoxically, open the door to find out whether he’s actually innocent.

The New England Innocence Project officially accepted Chatman’s case several years ago. But, as they told me at the time, they generally don’t start actively working on a case while it is still in the regular appeal process. Understandable, for triage reasons, if a tad frustrating.

With that appeal now denied, NEIP can start working on Chatman’s case, if and when they have the time and resources available to turn attention to it.

Who knows how long that process might take, or if it’s even possible to prove anything at this point. Chatman will be waiting, in his prison cell, to find out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *