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Craig Harris v. State of Mississippi
Case Number: 2020-CP-00058-COA
Judge: Joel Smith
Court: IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA
Plaintiff's Attorney: OQFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: ZAKIA HELEN ANNYCE BUTLER
Jackson, MS - Criminal defense attorney represented Craig Harris with one count of first-degree murder.
A grand jury indicted Harris for one count of first-degree murder. The State offered
Harris the opportunity to negotiate a reduced sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. The
negotiations resulted in a reduced charge of second-degree murder. After Harris pled guiltyto second-degree murder, the circuit court sentenced him to serve forty years in the custody
of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC). Harris then unsuccessfully moved
for PCR. Aggrieved, he appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶3. “When reviewing a circuit court’s denial or dismissal of a PCR motion, we will
reverse the judgment of the circuit court only if its factual findings are clearly erroneous;
however, we review the circuit court’s legal conclusions under a de novo standard of
review.” Hays v. State, 282 So. 3d 714, 716-17 (¶5) (Miss. Ct. App. 2019) (quoting Gunn v.
State, 248 So. 3d 937, 941 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018)).
¶4. Harris argues that the circuit court should have sua sponte ordered a competency
hearing prior to accepting his guilty plea and that the court’s failure to do so violated his due
process rights. Constitutional due process rights prohibit criminal prosecution if the
defendant is not legally competent. Joiner v. State, 240 So. 3d 1243, 1244 (¶6) (Miss. Ct.
App. 2018). Mississippi Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.1(a) provides that “to be deemed
mentally competent, a defendant must have the ability to perceive and understand the nature
of the proceedings, to communicate rationally with the defendant’s attorney about the case,
to recall relevant facts, and to testify in the defendant’s own defense, if appropriate.” The
Mississippi Supreme Court has stated that to be held incompetent to stand trial, “there must
be evidence indicating a reasonable probability that the defendant is incapable of making a
rational decision.” Joiner, 240 So. 3d at 1245 (¶8). Additionally, “[t]he presence of a mental
2illness, defect, or disability alone is not grounds for finding a defendant incompetent to stand
trial.” MRCrP 12.1(a).
¶5. Under Rule 12, “[t]here is a presumption of mental competency,” but “[i]f at any time
before or after indictment, the court, on its own motion or the motion of any party, has
reasonable grounds to believe that the defendant is mentally incompetent, the court shall
order the defendant to submit to a mental examination.” MRCrP 12.1(a), 12.2(a). The
“quantum of evidence” that requires a trial court to sua sponte order a competency hearing
has not yet been defined, but “the United States Supreme Court has explained ‘evidence of
a defendant’s irrational behavior, his demeanor at trial, and any prior medical opinion on
competence to stand trial are all relevant in determining whether further inquiryis required.’”
Joiner, 240 So. 3d at 1245 (¶8) (quoting Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180 (1975)).
¶6. Determining “whether a trial court has a ‘reasonable ground’ to suspect mental
incompetency is within the discretion of the trial court,” and “[t]his discretion is broad . . .
because the trial judge is in the best position to observe the appellant and his demeanor.” Id.
at (¶6). “The standard of competency necessary to enter a plea of guilty is the same as that
for determining competency to stand trial.” Russell v. State, 44 So. 3d 431, 435 (¶13) (Miss.
Ct. App. 2010). The defendant bears the burden “to show by substantial evidence that his
competency to stand trial is in question.” Jones v. State, 274 So. 3d 940, 946 (¶18) (Miss. Ct.
App. 2018). Notably, this Court “gives great weight to the statements made under oath during
a guilty plea hearing.” Russell, 44 So. 3d at 435 (¶15).
¶7. Harris is presumed mentally competent, and he bears the burden of presenting
3substantial evidence to show his competency is in question. Upon review, and as further
discussed below, we find Harris has presented no evidence to show a reasonable ground for
the circuit court to believe he was incompetent at his plea hearing.
I. Evidence Available at Harris’s Plea Hearing
¶8. Harris argues the circuit court received sufficient information to raise a bona fide
doubt as to his competency but that the court failed to conduct a separate hearing in light of
the information. The record fromHarris’s plea hearing shows the circuit court inquired about
his mental state and was made aware of Harris’s history with mental illness. The circuit court
then properly investigated Harris’s state of mind further by asking Harris specific questions.
Contrary to Harris’s allegations, the record indicates the circuit court initially had
reservations about his competency and attempted to hold a separate conference, but Harris
and his attorney opposed the need for a separate conference. Both Harris and his attorney
assured the circuit court that Harris was competent at the time of the plea hearing and could
enter a guilty plea:
[JUDGE]: All right, Mr. Harris, since you say that you’ve been declared
insane, I’m going to have to ask you to step back and have a
seat, and I will visit with you and your – or I will let you talk to
Mr. Defer for a second.
. . . .
[HARRIS]: Oh, no, I’m good. Talking right now?
[JUDGE]: Yes, sir.
[HARRIS]: Oh, I’m fine.
[DEFER]: Your Honor, I think he misunderstood your question. When I
4have talked to Mr. Harris over and over and I’ve repeatedly
asked him was he ever declared insane or incompetent and he
[JUDGE]: Is that correct, Mr. Harris?
[HARRIS]: Yeah, I did say that, but that was after though. I forgot to tell
you that part of it though.
[DEFER]: But you’re sane now?
. . . .
[DEFER]: Okay. But they didn’t just lock you up and throw away the key
in a mental institution?
[HARRIS]: No. No.
[DEFER]: Okay, that’s what the judge is asking you.
[HARRIS]: No, it was nothing like that.
. . . .
[JUDGE]: All right, Mr. Hale [(Prosecutor)], but on your investigation you
never received any kind of [information that] Mr. Harris has
been declared mentally ill?
[HALE]: No, sir.
[DEFER]: I have not either, Your Honor. For the record, I met with his
mother and his sister in my office, we went through his medical
history . . . but there was not anything in that interview or during
my investigation of the case that raised a red flag for me that he
was mentally incompetent to proceed with this case. He has
always communicated with me in this case. He’s talked to me,
he’s asked me questions. I have no reservations in going
¶9. The record indicates that Harris was alert, able to communicate rationally with his
5attorney and recall facts, and understood the nature of the proceedings. He freely participated
in the matter and expressed himself in a clear and rational manner. Based on the evidence of
Harris’s statements under oath during his plea hearing, the circuit court did not have
reasonable grounds to believe Harris was mentally incompetent. Thus, the circuit court was
not required to sua sponte order a competency hearing before accepting Harris’s guilty plea.
II. Additional Evidence Contained in Harris’s PCR Motion
¶10. A significant portion of Harris’s appellate brief focuses on evidence that did not yet
exist at the time of his plea hearing. To support his claim, Harris offers evidence including:
the testimony of Sarah Houston, his sister; the circuit court’s statements; an exhibit from
Davis Family Pharmacy regarding the medication fluoxetine; and a document from Harris’s
¶11. Houston’s testimony, at a later sentencing date, described Harris’s character and stated
that he had been having mental problems for a while,1
but her testimony did not provide the
circuit court any evidence of additional competency concerns beyond those initially raised
during his guilty plea that were properly investigated by the trial court. Harris also references
a portion of the record where the circuit court later acknowledged at the same sentencing
hearing that Harris “may or may not have some mental issues.” As with Houston’s testimony,
1 Harris cites an additional portion of Houston’s testimony in which she stated that
Harris was remorseful but had told her he does not remember what happened and only
admitted to the crime because somebody said he did it. The Comment to Rule 12.2 states
“[s]ections (a) and (b) make clear that the determination of the defendant’s competency to
stand trial is separate and distinct from the determination of the defendant’s sanity at the
time of the offense.” This section of Houston’s testimony has no bearing on the issue of
Harris’s competency at the plea hearing and is not relevant to the claim Harris has presented
on appeal. MRCrP 12.2(a).
6the circuit court’s statement was not intended to nor did it provide separate or additional
evidence that would lead the circuit court to believe he was incompetent to proceed with his
case. As a result, these statements could not have served as evidence giving rise to a
reasonable ground for the circuit court to doubt Harris’s competency to plead guilty.
¶12. Harris also includes a document fromDavis FamilyPharmacy describing the uses and
side effects of fluoxetine, sold under the brand name “Prozac,” and a 2011 document from
his psychologist attesting to his severe depression and prior suicide attempt. Depression,
anxiety medication, and a suicide attempt alone do not necessarily rise to the level of
showing incompetence to enter a guilty plea.2 Further, Harris’s argument that these
documents support finding him incompetent is misplaced. Harris submitted both documents
to the circuit court for the first time with his PCR motion. Neither of these documents were
available as evidence during his plea hearing, and thus, they could not form the basis for
See Hickenbottom v. State, 223 So. 3d 805, 808 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017)
(“Despite being advised on [the defendant’s] past mental-illness history including
depression, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations, the trial judge found no evidence at the
hearing to support Hickenbottom’s assertion that he [was] incompetent to stand trial.”); see
also Benoman v. State, 166 So. 3d 609, 611 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (holding a letter
from the East Mississippi State Hospital that “recommended placing [the defendant] in a
mental psychiatric unit to target his core problems, major depression and suicidal
ideations . . . do[es] not indicate that he was incompetent to stand trial.”); see also
Fortenberry v. State, 151 So. 3d 222, 224-25 (¶8) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (holding “[w]hile
[defendant] stated that he was on several prescription medications, he did not, at any point,
inform the trial court that the medication affected his mental state or that he had doubts
about pleading guilty. . . . We, like the trial court, have been provided only his bare
assertions. . . . Therefore, we cannot say that the trial court erred in summarily rejecting [the
defendant’s] contention that his prescription medication rendered his guilty plea
7reasonable grounds to question Harris’s competency.
3 Because none of Harris’s offered
evidence indicates that the circuit court erred by failing to sua sponte order a competency
hearing, we find this issue lacks merit.
III. Circumstances Surrounding Harris’s Guilty Plea
¶13. Harris’s claimthatthe circumstances surrounding his guilty-plea agreement raise bona
fide doubts as to his competency also lacks merit. He alleges that a bona fide doubt is raised
where a defendant’s guilty plea is sudden and there is no attempt to seek any concessions.
Harris contends that his guilty plea was sudden because it was made within three months of
his indictment and that he entered a guilty plea without incentive since it was for the
maximum sentence. Contrary to Harris’s contention, he did receive an incentive to plead
guilty. Harris was originally indicted on a charge of first-degree murder, but the charge was
reduced to second-degree murder in exchange for his guilty plea. See Vance v. State, 799 So.
3 Harris also offers these documents to support his argument that his actions did not
constitute a criminal act because he was taking Prozac and the risk of side effects was
greater for him as a person who previously attempted suicide. Whether Harris’s actions
constitute a criminal act goes to his mental capacity at the time of the action, rather than his
capacity at the time of the plea hearing. The issue in this case is Harris’s competency at his
plea hearing, not Harris’s capacity at the time of the crime. The Comment to Mississippi
Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.1 says,
Rule 12.1 addresses only the defendant’s competency to stand trial, and not
the defendant’s possible insanity at the time of the alleged offense. See Parker
v. State, 30 So. 3d 1222, 1230-31 (Miss. 2010); Medina v. California, 505
U.S. 437, 448, 112 S. Ct. 2572, 2579, 120 L. Ed. 2d 353 (1992) (“[T]here are
significant differences between a claim of incompetence and a plea of not
guilty by reason of insanity.”)[.]
Thus, the documents from Davis Family Pharmacy and Harris’s psychologist are irrelevant
82d 100, 103 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (holding “a defendant is entitled to get the benefit
of his bargain, and we find that Vance got just that. The terms of the agreement were: in
exchange for a confession and guilty plea fromVance, the prosecutor would lower the charge
from murder to manslaughter”). The circumstances surrounding Harris’s guilty plea raised
no bona fide doubt that would have given the circuit court reasonable grounds to sua sponte
order a competency hearing. Accordingly, this argument lacks merit.
IV. A Meaningful Hearing
¶14. In his final assignment of error, Harris properly cites the standard for determining
“whether [a] court can now conduct an adequate hearing to retrospectively determine the
petitioner’s competency at the time of his trial.” Wheat v. Thigpen, 793 F.2d 621, 630 (5th
Cir. 1986) (citing Drope, 420 U.S. at 183). However, this standard4
only applies if the
“This court has repeatedly sanctioned nunc pro tunc proceedings where there is
sufficient data available to guarantee reliability.” Wheat, 793 F.2d at 630. In determining
whether a retrospective hearing would be meaningful and adequate, the court considers “the
transcript of the trial,” “contemporaneous expert medical evidence,” and “recollections of
non-experts (including the observations of the trial judge) who had the opportunity to
interact with defendant during the relevant period.” Id. The Mississippi Supreme Court
embraced Wheat in Pitchford, ultimately finding,
Where sufficient information is available to conduct a meaningful hearing to
evaluate retrospectively the defendant’s competence to stand trial, such a
hearing does not violate due process standards. See, e.g., Wheat, 793 F.2d at
630 (“The test for the district court in determining the question of
meaningfulness is whether ‘the quantity and quality of available evidence was
adequate to arrive at an assessment that could be labeled as more than mere
speculation.’”). “Contemporaneous expert medical evidence often provides the
most useful evidence” of whether a meaningful retrospective hearing may be
held. James [v. State], 86 So. 3d [286,] 293 [(¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012)]
(quoting Wheat, 793 F.2d at 630). We also are in accord with the Fifth Circuit
that the State should bear the burden of demonstrating that a meaningful
retrospective competency hearing can be conducted. Once demonstrated, the
9defendant has met his burden to show the court committed a violation by not conducting a
competency hearing. Here, Harris has failed to show that the circuit court committed a
violation by not ordering a competency hearing. Therefore, the standard for conducting a
retroactively meaningful hearing does not apply to Harris’s claim.
Outcome: During Harris’s plea hearing, the circuit court was made aware of Harris’s history
with mental illness, and the record indicates any potential competency issues were dispelled after an investigation by the circuit court wherein Harris and his attorney both averred that Harris was competent to plead guilty. This Court finds Harris failed to show there was any reasonable ground to conclude he was incompetent to plead guilty. We therefore affirm the circuit court’s denial of Harris’s PCR motion.