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« Dias v. City and County of Denver | Main | Tenth Circuit Bends the Rules for a Defendant Due to Prosecutorial Indiscretion »

What is Normal?

By Amber L. Blasingame

What is normal?  Or rather, in the legal field, what is competence to stand trial?  According to the Tenth Circuit, competence may include a man who stomps his feet like a child and insists on testifying simultaneously with a witness a la Judge Judy.  United States v. Cornejo-Sandoval, 564 F.3d 1225, 1230 (10th Cir. 2009).  In United States v. Cornejo-Sandoval, the Tenth Circuit concluded that “Defendant was a difficult client, highly suspicious of his lawyers, but ultimately . . . ‘there were no signs of his having compromised competence related capacities.’”

The defendant, Hilario Cornejo-Sandoval, also known as “El Sapo” (The Toad), was charged with conspiracy to possess 500 grams of cocaine with intent to distribute, and possession of 500 grams of cocaine with intent to distribute.  He claimed that Barbaro Veloz, an informant, also known as “El Pequeño” (The Little One), lured him into the procurement and distribution of the cocaine at a fast food restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which resulted in Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval’s arrest.

Prior to trial, Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval hired Brian Pori to defend him before the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico.  After Mr. Pori motioned to withdraw as counsel, the court ordered a competency evaluation of Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval.  Dr. Eric Westfried conducted the evaluation and concluded that Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval was competent to stand trial, but Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval was “resistant and possibly uncooperative,” most especially towards his attorney, Mr. Pori, because he did “not feel he [was] receiving adequate representation.”  Dr. Westfried theorized that Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval, being a person from Mexico, expected all his legal problems would go away if he hired a high-paid attorney.  Despite Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval’s hang-ups with the legal system, Dr. Westfried found Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval to be “not presently insane.”

The district court, more than once, attempted to accommodate Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval’s eccentricities.  After Dr. Westfried’s evaluation, the court appointed a public defender to provide Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval with a second opinion and to convince Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval to keep Mr. Pori as his defense counsel.  When Mr. Pori complained to the court that Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval remained “unwilling to assist his attorney in any way in the preparation for trial,” the court appointed a native Spanish-speaking attorney as co-counsel to “assist with some of the communication difficulties.”  However, Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval continued to resist both his attorneys’ and the court’s attempts to educate him on proper criminal procedure.  Convinced that the court was denying him the justice he deserved, he threw a temper tantrum in court when the court refused to let him confront Mr. Veloz, the informant, as a co-defendant, rather than just a defense witness. The court obliged Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval and allowed Mr. Veloz to testify before the Prosecution’s case-in-chief, but Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval refused to remain in the courtroom unless he was also allowed to testify in tandem with Mr. Veloz.  The court refused to accommodate Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval further, in the name of decorum.  In a footnote, the Tenth Circuit explained that the “exact words explaining that Defendant would not be allowed to disrupt the proceedings were, ‘you don’t let the patients run the asylum’”; which the Tenth Circuit surmised may have been an inappropriate aphorism under the circumstances, and suggested the district court consider in the future using “‘you don’t let a fox guard the henhouse.’”

Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did “not abuse its discretion in failing to order a second competency evaluation,” and correctly found that Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval was competent “to understand the charges against him and assist in his defense.”  The Tenth Circuit also agreed that Mr. Cornejo-Sandoval’s behavior during trial “was merely an attempt to disrupt the proceedings.”