Court of Appeals Reverses Conviction: Judge Should Have Questioned Competency When Defense Was “Victim Was Not Human”

Orange County Criminal Court Judge James Marion should have known that a decompensating pro per criminal defendant was not competent when he had a history of severe, chronic mental health problems and presented a defense that his victim was not human, says the Court of Appeal Fourth District Division 3 in its opinon in People v. Murdoch, G043313.

Mr. Murdoch was charged with stabbing a roommate from whom he was renting a room. He filed a motion to represent himself and the court sent him for two independent mental health evaluations. The doctors opined he was competent to stand trial, despite his severe, chronic mental health problems, as we was on medication. Mr. Murdoch told one of the doctors that he didn’t always take his medication.

By the time of trial, one could wonder when he took it last. The defense he presented was that the victim was an angelic, nonhuman being. He told the court he wanted to offer pages of the bible into evidence and cross-examine the witness as to whether she was a bibical figure. All he needed to know, he said, was if the witness could shrug her shoulders like him or if her shoulders were replaced with wings. Once the witness did shrug her shoulders, Mr. Murdoch stated the witness was an imposter!

The court allowed all this, without having a doubt about Mr. Murdoch’s competency. The court should have had a doubt. Thankfully, Mr. Murdoch’s conviction has been overturned with an order to determine his competency.

Last year I helped prepare the Santa Ana YMCA mock trial team to present their cases at the Santa Ana School Board before Judge Marion. Fortunately, the defendant in the mock trial examination was competent.

Lauren K Johnson is a criminal defense attorney in Orange County, California and has represented many clients with serious mental health disorders in criminal court.