Cooper v. Oklahoma (95-5207), 517 U.S. 348 (1996).
[ Stevens ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the court of criminal appeals of oklahoma

No. 95-5207. Argued January 17, 1996 -- Decided April 16, 1996

Oklahoma law presumes that a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial unless he proves his incompetence by clear and convincing evidence. Applying that standard, a judge found petitioner Cooper competent on separate occasions before and during his trial for first degree murder, despite his bizarre behavior and conflicting expert testimony on the issue. In affirming his conviction and death sentence, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected his argument that the State's presumption of competence, combined with its clear and convincing evidence standard, placed such an onerous burden on him as to violate due process.

Held: Because Oklahoma's procedural rule allows the State to try a defendant who is more likely than not incompetent, it violates due process. Pp. 5-22.

(a) It is well settled that the criminal trial of an incompetent defendant violates due process. Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 449, establishes that a State may presume that the defendant is competent and require him to prove incompetence by a preponderance of the evidence. Such a presumption does not offend a " `principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,' " id., at 445, for it affects the outcome "only in a narrow class of cases . . . where the evidence that a defendant is competent is just as strong as the evidence that he is incompetent," id., at 449. This case, however, presents the quite different question whether a State may proceed with a criminal trial after a defendant has shown that he is more likely than not incompetent. Pp. 5-7.

(b) Oklahoma's rule has no roots in historical practice. Both early English and American cases suggest that the common law standard of proof was preponderance of the evidence. That this same standard is currently used by 46 States and the federal courts indicates that the vast majority of jurisdictions remain persuaded that Oklahoma's heightened standard is not necessary to vindicate the State's interest in prompt and orderly disposition of criminal cases. The near uniform application of a standard that is more protective of the defendant's rights than Oklahoma's rule supports the conclusion that the heightened standard offends a deeply rooted principle of justice. Pp. 7-14.

(c) Oklahoma's rule does not exhibit "fundamental fairness" in operation. An erroneous determination of competence has dire consequences for a defendant who has already demonstrated that he is more likely than not incompetent, threatening the basic fairness of the trial itself. A defendant's inability to communicate effectively with counsel may leave him unable to exercise other rights deemed essential to a fair trial--e.g., choosing to plead guilty, waiving his privilege against compulsory self incrimination by taking the witness stand, or waiving his rights to a jury trial or to cross examine witnesses--and to make a myriad of smaller decisions concerning the course of his defense. These risks outweigh the State's interest in the efficient operation of its criminal justice system. Difficulty in ascertaining whether a defendant is incompetent or malingering may make it appropriate to place the burden of proof on him, but it does not justify the additional onus of an especially high standard of proof. Pp. 14-19.

(d) Although it is normally within a State's power to establish the procedures through which its laws are given effect, the power to regulate procedural burdens is subject to proscription under the Due Process Clause when, as here, the procedures do not sufficiently protect a fundamental constitutional right. Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, distinguished. The decision herein is in complete accord with the ruling in Addington v. Texas, 441 U.S. 418, that due process requires a clear and convincing evidence standard of proof in involuntary civil commitment proceedings. That ruling protects an individual's fundamental liberty interest, while the ruling in this case safeguards the fundamental right not to stand trial while incompetent. Pp. 19-21.

889 P. 2d 293, reversed and remanded.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.