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State v. Mette-Njuldnir

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Special Division

July 21, 2015

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
AROOSTOOK METTE-NJULDNIR, Appellant

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Callaway County, Missouri. The Honorable Kevin M.J. Crane, Judge.

For Respondent: Chris Koster, Attorney General, Richard A. Starnes, Assistant Attorney General, Jefferson City, MO.

For Appellant: Margaret M. Johnston, Assistant Public Defender, Columbia, MO.

Before: Lisa White Hardwick, Presiding Judge, and Karen King Mitchell and Cynthia L. Martin, Judges. Lisa White Hardwick, Presiding Judge, and Cynthia L. Martin, Judge, concur.

OPINION

Karen King Mitchell, J.

Aroostook Mette-Njuldnir appeals his conviction of second-degree assault, entered following a jury trial, for which he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. Mette-Njuldnir raises two points on appeal: (1) the trial court erred in failing to hold a hearing to determine whether Mette-Njuldnir was competent to be tried and sentenced; and (2) the trial court erred in failing to sua sponte declare a mistrial because Mette-Njuldnir's testimony suggested that he lacked mental fitness. Because the record supported the trial court's determination that Mette-Njuldnir was competent to be tried and sentenced, we find no error and affirm.

Background

On August 25, 2009, Mette-Njuldnir was a patient at the Biggs Unit in Fulton State Hospital (FSH) in Callaway County. That afternoon, Mette-Njuldnir approached Alicia Simons (a social worker employed by FSH and a member of Mette-Njuldnir's treatment team) and punched her in the face and abdomen, causing three fractures to her eye socket, which later required surgery. The incident was captured on videotape, and Mette-Njuldnir later voluntarily wrote a detailed letter to the Chief Operating Officer of FSH explaining his conduct, noting that Simons " only received two of three punches thrown. Both medium paced. I'm getting old, I guess so, the third, career ender, missed. At 45ish, I'm guessing she may recover and even return to work." [1] As a result of his conduct, Mette-Njuldnir was charged on March 31, 2010, by information, with one count of second-degree assault.

Mette-Njuldnir had been a patient at FSH as a result of prior involuntary commitments, under § 552.020,[2] following criminal charges in both Buchanan and Jackson counties.[3] Accordingly, on May 10, 2010, Mette-Njuldnir's trial counsel filed a motion for an independent mental examination to determine whether Mette-Njuldnir possessed the capacity to understand the proceedings in Callaway County and assist in his own defense. The trial court granted the request, and Dr. Michael Armour, a certified forensic examiner for the Department of Mental Health (DMH), found that Mette-Njuldnir was afflicted with delusional disorder--persecutory type, which constituted a mental disease or defect under Missouri law, and that, as a result of his mental disease or defect, Mette-Njuldnir lacked mental fitness to proceed.[4] Dr. Armour opined that Mette-Njuldnir would not regain his mental fitness at anytime in the foreseeable future.

Trial counsel filed a " Notice of Contest to Findings of 552.020 Evaluation, Request for Hearing Pursuant to 552.020(7), Request that a Six[-]Person Jury be Impaneled, and Notice of Hearing." The notice specifically contested the following findings: (a) that Mette-Njuldnir suffered from delusions; (b) that Mette-Njuldnir had any mental health disorder; (c) that any alleged disorder constituted a mental disease or defect; (d) that Mette-Njuldnir lacked mental fitness to proceed; (e) that Mette-Njuldnir's ability to consult with counsel was impaired; (f) that Mette-Njuldnir required hospitalization for psychiatric treatment; and (g) various other facts and conclusions within the report. The notice sought a court determination that Mette-Njuldnir was, in fact, competent to stand trial.

At a subsequent pretrial hearing, trial counsel withdrew the notice--contrary to Mette-Njuldnir's wishes[5]--and asked the court to find Mette-Njuldnir incompetent to proceed, to order him committed to DMH with a six-month review for competency, and to appoint a guardian for Mette-Njuldnir. The court later entered an order finding Mette-Njuldnir incompetent to proceed, suspending the proceedings against him, and committing him to the custody of DMH.[6]

Mette-Njuldnir was evaluated again pursuant to a six-month review, this time by Dr. Kline, a licensed psychologist for DMH. Like Dr. Armour, Dr. Kline diagnosed Mette-Njuldnir with delusional disorder. But unlike Dr. Armour, Dr. Kline concluded that Mette-Njuldnir was competent to proceed with his criminal case, though he opined that Mette-Njuldnir " could become psychiatrically unstable at some point in the future in the course of the proceedings."

In response to Dr. Kline's report, trial counsel filed a " Notice of Contest to Findings of 552.020 Evaluation, Request for Additional Examination, Request that Additional Examination be Audio or Videotaped, Request that Defendant be Allowed to Retain Audiotape or Videotape of Psychiatric Examination, and Notice of Hearing." [7] The trial court entered an order allowing the defense to proceed with an independent mental evaluation and allowing Mette-Njuldnir to record the interview. The court initially set the matter for a competency hearing on July 9, 2012, but Mette-Njuldnir's independent mental evaluation had not been completed by that date. Sometime in late August or early September of 2012, the evaluation was finally completed, and Dr. Petersen, the evaluating psychologist, found Mette-Njudnir competent to proceed.[8] Accordingly, trial counsel requested a trial setting. Mette-Njuldnir personally asked the court about a hearing and a six-person panel, and the court indicated that the hearing would occur only if Dr. Kline's findings were contested, and since Mette-Njuldnir's independent evaluator reached the same conclusions as Dr. Kline, there was no contest and no need for a hearing.

Mette-Njuldnir filed a pro se motion for a " fairness hearing," wherein he challenged trial counsel's decisions to withdraw the notice of contest to Dr. Armour's report and to not further challenge Dr. Kline's report with a written report from Dr. Petersen. In discussing the motion with the court, trial counsel represented that Mette-Njuldnir had no disagreement with Dr. Kline's ultimate conclusion that Mette-Njuldnir was competent; rather, he wished to challenge other findings within the report. Mette-Njuldnir also personally expressed concerns about proceeding without a written report from Dr. Petersen.

The case proceeded to jury trial, where Mette-Njuldnir presented a self-defense claim, arguing that his action of striking Simons was the result of mistreatment by DMH, including forced medication, separation from legal papers, and refusal to sign and date legal papers when provided to him, among other things. Mette-Njuldnir argued that he had taken all of the proper procedural steps to address his issues through DMH, but nothing was done and none of his problems were resolved; thus, he felt compelled to do something to stop the problems and defend himself from further psychological harm, so he punched Simons in an effort to preclude her from working at DMH and get her off his treatment team.[9] Trial counsel requested that the jury be instructed on self-defense, but the court denied the request. The jury found Mette-Njuldnir guilty of second-degree assault and recommended punishment of three years' imprisonment.

Before the sentencing hearing, the trial court ordered a fourth mental evaluation on its own motion. The order indicated that the court had " reasonable cause to believe the accused lacks mental fitness to proceed." Neither the transcript nor the order provides any information as to the basis for the court's belief. This fourth examination was conducted by Dr. Kline. Dr. Kline again diagnosed Mette-Njuldnir with delusional disorder and again found him to be competent, despite the diagnosis. The report indicated that Mette-Njuldnir understood that his claim of self-defense lacked a legal basis under the existing law, but it was his hope and belief that he could persuade the jury to ignore the law in light of the circumstances of his case. The report also opined that Mette-Njuldnir had been competent throughout his trial and remained competent for sentencing.

At the sentencing hearing, Mette-Njuldnir advised the court that he wished to contest Dr. Kline's findings, even though trial counsel did not.[10] The court asked trial counsel to clarify, and trial counsel advised the court as follows:

MR. CARVER: Well, my understanding, Your Honor, if I can help explain that a little bit. Mr. Mette-Njuldnir agrees with the finding that he is competent. Mr. Mette-Njuldnir thinks he's competent. He just disagrees about some of the particulars in the report and ...

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