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Piersee v. Cassady

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

August 11, 2017

CHRISTOPHER PIERSEE, Petitioner,
v.
JAY CASSADY, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the pro se petition of Missouri state prisoner Christopher Piersee for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. On August 26, 2009, Petitioner pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and was thereafter sentenced to concurrent sentences of life without the possibility of parole. In his petition for federal habeas relief, Petitioner raises two ineffective assistance of counsel claims: (1) plea counsel was ineffective because he failed to hire a forensic psychiatrist to establish that Petitioner was incompetent to plead guilty on August 26, 2009; and (2) plea counsel was ineffective because he failed to hire a forensic psychiatrist to establish that, at the time Petitioner committed the murders, he suffered from a mental disease or defect that prevented him from having the capacity to form the intent necessary to commit first-degree murder. For the reasons set forth below, federal habeas relief will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         On or about February 2, 2009, Petitioner killed his wife and six-month-old son in their home in La Grange, Missouri. Three weeks prior, Petitioner began ingesting excessive amounts of Coricidin HBP, a cold medicine containing dextromethorphan, which can produce dissociative hallucinogenic states when ingested at doses much higher than those medically recommended. On the night of February 2, 2009, Petitioner shot his wife in the head and inflicted blunt force trauma to the head of his infant son, killing both. On the morning of February 3, 2009, Petitioner's father-in-law discovered the bodies of Petitioner's wife and infant son and Petitioner, who was naked, covered in blood, and on the bed. Petitioner had a number of self-inflicted wounds on his arms. Petitioner's father-in-law held Petitioner at gunpoint until the authorities arrived.

         Petitioner was immediately taken into custody and transported to a hospital. There, Petitioner was prescribed a number of medications, including Risperdal, Lorazepam, Paxil, and Ativan, [1] to manage his symptoms of depression and psychosis, and he remained in the hospital for 24 days before being transferred to jail. Petitioner attempted suicide on three occasions while in jail after returning from the hospital. ECF No. 10-1 at 12.

         The State charged Petitioner with two counts of the class A felony of murder in the first degree and one count of the unclassified felony of armed criminal action. After meeting with Petitioner and in light of the serious nature of the charges, plea counsel hired forensic psychologist Jeffry Kline, Ph.D., to evaluate Petitioner's mental state, and Dr. Kline provided plea counsel with a written report. ECF No. 10-2. The report contains the following information. On June 16, 2009, Dr. Kline performed a mental evaluation of Petitioner for the purpose of determining Petitioner's mental state at that time, as well as at the time of the murders. Dr. Kline reviewed a number of records, including medical records from the hospital and records from the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Dr. Kline reported on Petitioner's family, educational, employment, military, relationship, psychiatric, and alcohol and substance abuse history. He also went through a detailed description of the murders based on documents obtained from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

         Dr. Kline observed that during the examination, Petitioner was generally cooperative and was oriented to person, place, time, and situation. Dr. Kline observed that Petitioner's insight and judgment were both fair, and Petitioner's flow of thought was logical and goal-directed. Petitioner described his mood to Dr. Kline as being somewhat sad and depressed. Dr. Kline observed no evidence of delusions of paranoia, grandiosity, reference, or influence. During the course of the interview, Dr. Kline opined that Petitioner's intellect was in the low average range and that there was no apparent interference with his ability to reason or comprehend information presented to him. Dr. Kline observed that Petitioner's concentration was grossly intact.

         Dr. Kline determined that Petitioner suffered from symptoms of a major depressive disorder that was of mild intensity. He found that Petitioner responded to medication for the disorder, but there was no evidence to suggest this disorder was present in the weeks prior to the murders. He opined that “[Petitioner] was clearly suffering from symptoms of a substance induced psychosis at the time of the alleged criminal acts which resolved itself during his hospital stay after the events.” ECF No. 10-2 at 13. Dr. Kline went on to report that “[i]t is clear that [Petitioner] took these substances on a voluntary basis and had at least some understanding that he was becoming intoxicated on them. While it is clear that he was suffering from hallucinations and delusions at the time of the alleged criminal acts, which were likely the impetus for his actions, it is also clear that these hallucinations and delusions arose directly from the presence of the dextromethorphan in his system.” Id. at 16. Within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, Dr. Kline found that Petitioner did not suffer from a mental disease or defect at the time of the murders, but that he did suffer from hallucinations and delusions secondary to voluntary use of and intoxication on dextromethorphan.

         Guilty Plea

         On April 22, 2009, Petitioner was charged with two counts of class A felony murder in the first degree and one count of the unclassified felony of armed criminal action. The State indicated it would seek the death penalty. Based on Dr. Kline's report, plea counsel believed that Petitioner was competent to plead. On August 26, 2009, Petitioner pleaded guilty to two counts of murder in the first degree. As part of the plea bargain, the third count of felony armed criminal action was dismissed, and the State agreed it would not seek the death penalty, but instead would seek life imprisonment.

         During his guilty plea, Petitioner admitted to the two murders, expressed his remorse, and stated that he understood the rights he was waiving by pleading guilty. The plea court asked Petitioner whether he was on medication and, when Petitioner indicated he was, asked whether the medication made it difficult for Petitioner to understand the nature of the proceeding. Petitioner answered that it did not and asserted that he was not suffering from any mental condition that made it difficult for him to understand the proceeding and the implications thereof. The plea court accepted Petitioner's guilty plea (ECF No. 8, Ex. A, at 9), and on October 29, 2009, Petitioner was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for each count of murder in the first degree. Petitioner did not directly appeal his convictions.

         State Post-Conviction Proceedings

         On August 17, 2010, Petitioner, through appointed counsel, filed a Missouri Supreme Court Rule 24.035 amended motion seeking post-conviction relief and raising the same claims as those contained in this habeas action. Petitioner claimed that plea counsel was ineffective because he hired a forensic psychologist rather than a forensic psychiatrist to establish that Petitioner was incompetent to plead guilty, and that on the date of the murders, he suffered from a mental defect or disorder that prevented him from having the intent necessary to commit first-degree murder.

         In support of his claims, Petitioner relied on the written report of Ansell E. Daniel, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist. Dr. Daniel performed examinations of Petitioner on June 14 and 22, 2010, and July 1, 2010. ECF No. 10-1. Dr. Daniel's report contains the following information. The purpose of Dr. Daniel's evaluations of Petitioner were to determine, inter alia, whether Petitioner suffered from a mental disease or defect at the time of the evaluations, whether he suffered from a mental disease or defect at the time of the murders, whether he was competent to plea bargain at the time the plea was offered to him, and whether he was competent to proceed with motions for post-conviction relief. Dr. Daniel evaluated Petitioner for a total of about six hours and interviewed Petitioner's mother and grandmother. Dr. Daniel also reviewed a number of records, including medical records from the hospital and the jail.

         During the evaluations of Petitioner, Dr. Daniel observed that Petitioner was generally oriented to time, place, and person and that Petitioner was alert and cooperative. Petitioner told Dr. Daniel that he had stopped taking medications about a month before. Dr. Daniel observed that Petitioner's mood was depressed and that he occasionally experienced flashbacks and morbid thoughts about death. Dr. Daniel concluded with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Petitioner suffered from a psychotic disorder induced and caused by dextromethorphan. He opined that the psychotic disorder began in January 2009 after Petitioner began consuming large quantities of cold medicine tablets. The disorder was active at the time of the murders, and Dr. Daniel determined that the symptoms of psychosis persisted during Petitioner's hospitalization and continued during his incarceration at the jail and thereafter. Treatment of Petitioner's psychosis required heavy doses of antipsychotic medication (Risperdal and Haldol), a heavy dose of Ativan, and an antidepressant (Paxil or Celexa) over the course of approximately 18 months.

         Dr. Daniel stated that psychosis induced by a substance generally resolves with the discontinuation of the offending agent and/or treatment with antipsychotic medication, with the psychosis lasting a maximum of six months. Dr. Daniel opined that in Petitioner's case, clinical evidence indicated that Petitioner was psychotic for 18 months, which indicated an underlying psychotic disorder. Dr. Daniel opined that Petitioner was clearly psychotic and out of contact with reality at the time of the murders.

         As to Petitioner's mental state at the time of the plea, Dr. Daniel reported that Petitioner did not recall the specifics of his meetings with plea counsel. Petitioner told Dr. Daniel that Petitioner was taking medications that “made him slow down, zombie-like and moody.” Id. at 17. Dr. Daniel opined that the medications that Petitioner was taking at the time he pleaded guilty were at a dosage sufficient to blunt alertness, slow Petitioner's thinking, and cause short-term memory impairment. As a result, he “probably” suffered from substantial impairment of his sensorium, clarity in thinking, attention span, and registration and memory, precluding his ability to consider the pros and cons of the plea offer. Dr. Daniel opined that, as a result, it was unlikely Petitioner would have had the capacity to understand the charges against him or the implications of accepting or rejecting a plea agreement, nor would Petitioner have been unable to carefully evaluate his acceptance of the plea agreement. Dr. Daniel pointed out that Dr. Kline's report did not address the issue of Petitioner's competence to plead guilty and concluded that Petitioner:

1) Suffered from a mental disease or defect at the time of the offenses when he killed his wife and son as per the provisions of Chapter 552 RSMo (2000). As a result of the mental disease or defect, he did not know the nature, criminality and wrongfulness of his conduct and did not have the capacity to form the necessary intent to commit first degree murders.
2) Was not competent to plead guilty to the offenses in August, 2009. At the time when the plea bargain was offered to him by his attorney, he was heavily medicated with a combination of Risperdal and Ativan in doses far exceeding the usual therapeutic range. Under this heavily medicated state, he was substantially impaired in his ability to knowingly and voluntarily consider implications of such an offer and make a rational judgment.

Id. at 18.

         On April 19, 2012, the motion court[2] held an evidentiary hearing on Petitioner's motion for post-conviction relief, at which Dr. Daniel, Petitioner's grandmother, plea counsel, and law enforcement witnesses testified. Dr. Daniel testified consistent with his written report. He also testified that psychiatrists differ from psychologists in several respects. Psychiatrists hold medical degrees and undergo in-depth training regarding indications, side effects, and dosage of medications because they have the ability to prescribe medicine to patients. Psychologists, on the other hand, typically hold a Ph.D. and are unable to prescribe medicine. This distinction, Dr. Daniel opined, was relevant in Petitioner's case because a psychologist would be more able to identify whether Petitioner's competence to plead was impaired due to excessive medication. He did, however, concede that he would expect Dr. Kline to identify certain symptoms of over-medication, such as sedation. ECF No. 8, Ex. B, at 154-56.

         The law enforcement witnesses testified about the scene of the murders and Petitioner's demeanor after he was taken into custody. Specifically, the police witnesses established that various portions of the home were in disarray with pools of blood on the floor, a bloody knife, and numerous bullet holes in the wall. The walls were covered with handwritings that appeared to be written in blood, including “Lucifer” and “Michael the Arch Angel.” After Petitioner was taken into custody, he made several biblical references and referred to his son as “Lucifer.” Petitioner's grandmother testified that Petitioner had a good sense of humor as a child and that she had a good relationship with him. She testified that Petitioner loved his wife and son and that she would visit Petitioner and his family approximately every week. Petitioner's grandmother continued to visit Petitioner regularly after he was incarcerated, and she testified that between Petitioner's initial incarceration through sentencing, he seemed unable to focus when on medication. She also testified that at his sentencing, Petitioner did not seem like himself.

         Plea counsel testified as follows. Plea counsel was initially concerned about Petitioner's mental state and considered the possibility that Petitioner might not be competent to proceed with a plea agreement or trial. Plea counsel also wanted to investigate whether the defenses of not guilty by reason of insanity (“NGRI”) or diminished capacity were available to Petitioner. As a result, plea counsel engaged Dr. Kline to examine Petitioner in June 2009. Plea counsel gave Dr. Kline general instructions to examine Petitioner's mental health and competency, but did not specifically direct Dr. Kline to evaluate the potential defenses. ECF No. 8, Ex. B. at 74-75. Plea counsel did not specifically inform Dr. Kline that Petitioner was taking Risperdal, Lorazepam, Paxil, and Ativan, although Dr. Kline reviewed Petitioner's records from the hospital.

         Plea counsel testified that he discussed Dr. Kline's report and its impact on possible defenses with Petitioner. ECF No. 8, Ex. A at 47. Plea counsel also discussed the NGRI and diminished capacity defenses with colleagues at the Capital Division of the Missouri State Public Defender system. ECF No. 8, Ex. B at 80. The attorneys he consulted did not believe either defense was a “real possibility.” Id. This was in line with ...


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