Was judge senile in death penalty case? 9th Circuit dissenter sees 'painfully obvious' incompetence

A federal appeals court has discounted allegations that a judge who sentenced a triple murderer to death was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease at the time.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the death sentence for Ronald Deere, convicted of murdering three family members of his ex-girlfriend after she rejected him, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise and Trial Insider report. Deere was seeking a hearing into whether his lawyer was ineffective by failing to challenge the competency of Judge Fred Metheny of Riverside, Calif., during the penalty phase of his retrial in 1986.

Any suggestion that Metheny had Alzheimer’s at the time is supported by “anecdotes recounted by a grand total of three lawyers,” according to the majority opinion (PDF) by Judge Barry Silverman. And those anecdotes “reveal no more than eccentricity as distinguished from dementia,” the court said.

Silverman cited findings that Metheny, who died 25 years ago, was “scrupulously fair and objective” during the proceedings in Deere’s case.

One of the lawyers who submitted an affidavit told of a drawn-out small claims case before Metheny in 1986 in which the judge suddenly stepped down from the bench, started shaking hands with the litigants, and then started shaking hands with people in the spectator section. According to the lawyer, Metheny said he assumed all the people in court were Christians, and remarked upon the lawyers’ inability to settle. He then dismissed the case.

In his dissent, Judge Judge William Fletcher cited that affidavit and other evidence about Metheny’s mental state, including a 1987 newspaper article reporting on a survey that found Metheny to be the worst judge on the Riverside bench. “The majority holds that a judge suffering from dementia may sentence a man to death,” Fletcher wrote. “I disagree.”

According to Fletcher, Metheny’s mental incompetence was “painfully obvious” in the Deere resentencing hearings. He also said the affidavits submitted by the lawyers offer “a terrifying window into Judge Metheny’s courtroom.”

“It is an open secret that some judges stay on the bench too long,” Fletcher wrote. “Formal procedures exist for removing senile judges, but they are rarely employed. Attorneys hesitate to challenge judges they appear before, and judges hesitate to blow the whistle on their colleagues. I am as reluctant as most judges to seek to remove a senile judge or to set aside a decision reached by such a judge. But when a man’s life is at stake, I cannot stay silent.”

Hat tip to How Appealing.

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