The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF
This is a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, in behalf of a defendant, who was convicted of murder over twenty-five years ago, to vacate the sentence on the ground that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
On February 9, 1937, the defendant James Bostic was convicted of murder in the first degree, after a trial before the late Honorable James M. Proctor, then a judge of this Court, and a jury. On March 19, 1937, the defendant was sentenced to death by electrocution. The conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, 68 App.D.C. 167, 94 F.2d 636. Some years later, the President commuted the sentence to imprisonment. The defendant is serving this sentence at the Atlanta Penitentiary.
On October 24, 1960 -- more than 24 years after his conviction -- , new counsel filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, to vacate the sentence on the ground that the defendant back in February 1937 had been mentally incompetent to stand trial. This Court, after a preliminary argument and an examination of all files and records of the case, denied the motion without a full hearing, 192 F.Supp. 170. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was entitled to a hearing, 298 F.2d 678, Judge Burger strongly dissenting. Accordingly, such a hearing has now been held. Almost a day and a half were devoted to the taking of testimony.
Actually, an attempt to determine the mental condition and understanding of a human being on a specific date twenty-five years ago, is a formidable task bordering on the fantastic and the bizarre. The subject of mental competency to stand trial presents a much more difficult and complex problem than a determination of the question whether a person was suffering from a mental disease or was afflicted with a mental defect on a particular date in the distant past. The presence or absence of mental disease or mental defect is solely a medical matter. On the other hand, competency to stand trial, which involves capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings and to advise with counsel comprises additional factors. A person suffering from a mental disease may, nevertheless, be able to comprehend the nature of the proceedings against him and consult with counsel. This occurs frequently.
Moreover, at the time immediately preceding and during his trial, an afflicted person may have a lucid interval or be in a temporary state of remission. Accordingly, Dr. David J. Owens, of the staff of Saint Elizabeths Hospital, testified at this hearing that it is not practicable for a psychiatrist who examines a person several years after the event, to express an opinion whether at the earlier date that person was competent to stand trial.
It so happens, however, that in this instance, clear and convincing evidence on this point was available. While the burden of proof was on the moving party and accordingly counsel for the defendant presented evidence in support of the motion, the Court as a matter of convenience, will review the evidence introduced by the Government in opposition to the motion, before summarizing that adduced in support of the application.
Dr. Roger Cohen, a psychiatrist, testified that he had been retained by trial counsel for Bostic, to make a mental examination, and that he conducted such an examination on February 5, 1937, -- a few days before the original trial. Dr. Cohen further testified that as a result of a thorough mental, psychological and neurological examination, he reached the conclusion that Bostic was of sound mind, at that time. The doctor stated that although Bostic was not an educated man, he was intelligent and 'keen, alert and smart'. He expressed the opinion that Bostic comprehended the nature of the murder charge and was able to consult with counsel. He indicated that he had a vivid recollection of the story of the slaying as told him by Bostic.
Mr. Joseph Sitnick, a member of the bar who was counsel for Bostic at his trial, testified at a lunacy inquisition in May, 1940. His testimony was made a part of the record on this motion. The pertinent portions of his testimony are as follows:
'Q. Were you able to confer with Bostic and prepare a defense for him?
'Q. From the information he conveyed to you?
There were no other witnesses called by either side at the hearing on this motion who had an opportunity to observe Bostic at or about the time of his trial. The testimony just reviewed is ...