Testimony about psych evaluation not admissible when defendant withdraws insanity plea, rules Ohio Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that when a defendant asserts a mental-capacity defense in a criminal trial and then withdraws it, the state cannot present evidence of the evaluator's impression that the defendant was faking his mental illness during a court ordered psychiatric evaluation. The case before the court involved defendant Joseph Harris, who was convicted for the murder of Shane Gulleman after a jury trial in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas in 2011. Gulleman had contacted Harris to purchase Oxycontin and then traveled from Indiana to the Winton Terrace neighborhood in Cincinnati to complete the transaction. Gulleman was found dead in his car with multiple gunshot wounds.

Harris was indicted for the murder. He claimed that he was incompetent to stand trial and filed a "not guilty by reason of insanity" plea. The court appointed psychologist Carla Dreyer to evaluate him. She found him competent to stand trial and ineligible for the insanity plea. Harris then filed a notice of alibi, claiming that he was with his sister on the day of the murder.

At trial, the state of Ohio called Dreyer as a witness, and Harris objected. The state argued that Harris hadn’t withdrawn his competency claims or insanity plea, so the jury should be permitted to hear Dreyer’s testimony, and that she was going to testify that he was “malingering.” Harris withdrew his mental capacity claims, but the court permitted Dreyer to  offer testimony, during which she stated that Harris had been feigning mental illness during the evaluation.

Other witnesses also offered testimony at trial. Eyewitnesses testified that they saw Harris near the scene of the murder, and several inmates who had been incarcerated with Harris testified that he had confessed to murdering Gulleman and that he had planned to fake mental illness as a defense. Harris also testified in his own defense. He was convicted of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery and having weapons under a disability.

On appeal, the First District Court of Appeals found that admitting Dreyer’s testimony violated both Harris’ 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself and an Ohio law that prohibits admitting statements made during a psychiatric evaluation as evidence of a defendant’s guilt. The court found that admitting these statements was not harmless error and remanded the case for a new trial.

The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the First District ruling in a unanimous decision, with an opinion penned by Justice Kennedy, finding that

When a defendant asserts a mental-capacity defense or defenses, causing the court to order a psychiatric evaluation, but then wholly abandons that defense or defenses, a psychologist’s testimony regarding the defendant’s feigning of mental illness during the evaluation is inadmissible in the state’s case-in-chief pursuant to R.C. 2945.371(J). We further hold that the admission of a psychologist’s testimony opining on the defendant’s feigning of mental illness under these circumstances violates the defendant’s right against self-incrimination guaranteed by Article I,Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution and the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution...

In reaching this decision the Court focused on the fact that Harris had withdrawn his plea and would not be presenting his own evidence about his mental capacity, and that Dreyer's testimony held implications about Harris' guilt. In finding that this was not harmless error, Justice Kennedy stressed that Dreyer's opinion focused on Harris' credibility, and that this likely impacted the jury's opinions on his testimony and that of the inmates.

Justice French wrote a concurring opinion arguing that while admitting Dreyer's statements violated the defendant's constitutional rights, the Ohio statute in question should not apply in this case, as it prohibits admitting a defendant's statements, not opinions by the psychologist, as happened here.

See Court News Ohio and the Supreme Court's docket page for more information about this case.