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McLaren v. State

Supreme Court of Wyoming

December 28, 2017

STEVEN DEAN MCLAREN, Appellant (Defendant),
THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Plaintiff).

         Appeal from the District Court of Sweetwater County The Honorable Richard L. Lavery, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Office of the State Public Defender: Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson*, Chief Appellate Counsel; Kirk A. Morgan, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel. Argument by Ms. Olson.

          Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Christyne M. Martens, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Katherine A. Adams, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Ms. Adams.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ. *An order granting Ms. Olson's Motion to Withdraw was entered on December 13, 2017.

          FOX, Justice.

         [¶1] Steven D. McLaren challenges convictions for five felonies stemming from a bizarre and violent encounter with his girlfriend in March of 2014. He claims that the trial court violated his due process rights when it failed to order a third competency evaluation and when it allowed defense counsel to assert a plea of not guilty by reason of mental illness (NGMI) against his will. He also argues that the jury instructions contained structural error because they did not require the State to prove he did not act in a sudden heat of passion to establish attempted second-degree murder and that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied defense counsel's motion for mistrial after Mr. McLaren's outburst during trial. We conclude that, while the trial court did not improperly fail to order a competency hearing, it violated Mr. McLaren's due process rights when, in spite of Mr. McLaren's numerous declarations that he did not wish to proceed with the NGMI plea, it allowed defense counsel to assert the plea at trial. We reverse and remand.


         [¶2] We reorder and rephrase the issues as follows:

1. Did the trial court violate Mr. McLaren's constitutional rights when it failed to suspend the proceedings on its own motion and request a competency evaluation?
2. Did constitutional error occur when trial counsel proceeded on a not guilty by reason of mental illness plea against the will of his client?
3. Did structural error occur in connection with Mr. McLaren's attempted second-degree murder conviction because the jury instructions did not indicate that the State had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. McLaren did not act in a sudden heat of passion?
4. Did the trial court abuse its discretion when it denied the defense's motion for a mistrial after Mr. McLaren jumped up from his chair, moved toward the jury and the door, and yelled expletives in the presence of the jury?

         [¶3] We address the first and second issues because of the interplay between competency and the NGMI plea. Our ruling on the second issue is dispositive. Therefore, we address the third issue only to a limited extent to provide guidance on remand and we do not reach the last issue. See Sadler v. State, 2016 WY 56, ¶ 2, 375 P.3d 728, 728 (Wyo. 2016); Thomas v. State, 2003 WY 53, ¶ 30, 67 P.3d 1199, 1206 (Wyo. 2003).


         [¶4] Mr. McLaren owned 57 cats. He and his girlfriend, Jennifer Evans, referred to the cats as their "kids" or "the kid." On March 10, 2014, one of Mr. McLaren's exotic Savannah kittens, Cameo, was sick, so he and Ms. Evans took it to a veterinary clinic for treatment. Mr. McLaren testified that he had injected "somewhere between a quarter and a third of a gram" of methamphetamine right before he noticed Cameo was ill, had not slept for days, and had been experiencing hallucinations since the night before. He was under the impression that Ms. Evans was attempting to harm or kill the kitten.

         [¶5] After leaving Cameo at the veterinary clinic, they went to a convenience store where Mr. McLaren purchased a pack of cigarettes. The convenience store clerk testified that Mr. McLaren's behavior "threw a red flag, " he was "pacing back and forth, walking just a little weird, " and she kept an eye on him because she thought he was going to steal something. After Mr. McLaren left the convenience store, he and Ms. Evans drove around a nearby neighborhood looking at houses. Ms. Evans testified that at that time Mr. McLaren was "normal" and did not appear to be mad at her, but that they were "upset about the cat."

         [¶6] When they left the neighborhood, they stopped at a stop sign. According to Ms. Evans, that was when Mr. McLaren started acting "weird." Mr. McLaren turned to Ms. Evans and said, "I know what you did. You bathed in their blood." He then headed northbound on Yellowstone Road toward Highway 191, driving erratically, hitting speeds of over eighty miles per hour. He drove on the wrong side of the road, nearly colliding head-on with two separate vehicles and causing both to veer off the road. He called Ms. Evans names and told her that she "needed to pay for [her] sins." Mr. McLaren told Ms. Evans that she "was going to die" and that she "wasn't going to live to see tomorrow." He asked her why she killed their neighbors and told her he could smell their blood on her body.

         [¶7] Mr. McLaren continued driving north on Highway 191, coming to a stop in the southbound lane in front of an oncoming Pepsi truck. Ms. Evans attempted to get out of Mr. McLaren's truck, but he pulled her by her hair back into the truck and locked the doors, telling her that her "kids deserved a better mother" and that she "was going to die today." The Pepsi truck swerved around them, and Mr. McLaren turned off Highway 191, onto Wild Horse Loop. As he drove down Wild Horse Loop, Ms. Evans fought with Mr. McLaren and continued to attempt to get out, kicking the truck into park several times. Mr. McLaren also continued to hit and punch Ms. Evans; he grabbed her throat and forced her to the floorboard of the truck.

         [¶8] Mr. McLaren stopped the truck and hit Ms. Evans three times in the head with a Maglite flashlight that contained no batteries. There is conflicting testimony about whether he hit her while he was in the driver's seat of the truck or whether he hit her after he walked around to the passenger side of the truck. In any event, Mr. McLaren ultimately opened the passenger door and Ms. Evans fell out of the truck. Ms. Evans testified that Mr. McLaren stood over her, pulled her head to the left and the right, "trying to rip my head off, " and then let go. As soon as Mr. McLaren released her, Ms. Evans got up and ran toward Highway 191, where a truck stopped to assist her. When Ms. Evans arrived at the emergency room, she had two lacerations on her head and numerous bruises.

         [¶9] Mr. McLaren testified that the night before these events transpired, he saw a roe deer jump over his truck and that he saw "what looked like a woman with like the top of a deer, the color of deer, and real long black hair, and I don't know how or why, but I got it in my head all of a sudden that it was something like a 'jagula' or a devil woman, and I was kind of like really freaked out." He also testified that "[a]ll the time in the truck, I was . . . seeing this [jagula] but it was kind of out of my peripheral vision. If I looked at [Ms. Evans], I didn't see anything like that. I seen [Ms. Evans]." Mr. McLaren described driving past the truck that had stopped to help Ms. Evans after she ran away, stating that he "started seeing something out of [his] peripheral vision" and "took off." He then drove to a spot in the desert where he had a 360-degree view because he was "freaking out." Mr. McLaren testified that "I had in my mind that there was -- there was a 'jagular' or devil woman or a feline creature that wasn't just a cat, and . . . I don't know where it came from." He also testified that he saw a "jagula" in his truck. Mr. McLaren described a vision he had while he was in the desert: "I remember I seen something so fantastic at the bull works. . . . I can see the four pillars out at bull works, and then the side of an arch, it was perfect, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing . . . . I honestly believe that it's preflood." The sheriff who arrived on scene testified that when he first made contact with Mr. McLaren, he "seemed to be rambling" and that "he was saying something about aliens that were jumping from sagebrush to sagebrush in front of him as he was faced looking out across the desert, " but that he did not appear to be confused and he was able to follow commands.

         [¶10] Mr. McLaren was charged with five felonies: attempted second-degree murder, strangulation of a household member, two counts of aggravated assault, and kidnapping.[1]The procedural history is complex, due in large part to competency evaluations and hearings on Mr. McLaren's counsel's motions to withdraw, which will be discussed in greater detail as they become relevant to the issues raised in this appeal. Suffice it to say that Mr. McLaren underwent two competency evaluations, one ordered by the circuit court in March of 2014, which was completed in June of 2014, and one ordered by the district court on the eve of a December 2015 trial date, completed in February of 2016. At both evaluations, Mr. McLaren was found competent to proceed. Mr. McLaren was also evaluated in February of 2015 and April of 2015 regarding his criminal responsibility after defense counsel filed a motion to change his plea to NGMI.

          [¶11] A five-day jury trial commenced on April 11, 2016, and the jury found Mr. McLaren guilty on all counts. Mr. McLaren was sentenced to consecutive terms in prison of not less than twenty-four to twenty-eight years on attempted second-degree murder, four to five years for strangulation of a household member, eight to ten years on each aggravated assault count, and twenty-four years to twenty-eight years for kidnapping. Mr. McLaren timely filed this appeal.

         [¶12] Additional facts will be discussed as they relate to the issues Mr. McLaren raises.


         I. Did the trial court violate Mr. McLaren's constitutional rights when it failed to suspend the proceedings on its own motion and request a competency evaluation?

         [¶13] Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-11-302 (LexisNexis 2017) sets forth the standard for mental competency of a defendant to proceed in a criminal case:

(a) No person shall be tried, sentenced or punished for the commission of an offense while, as a result of mental illness or deficiency, he lacks the capacity to:
(i) Comprehend his position;
(ii) Understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him;
(iii) Conduct his defense in a rational manner; and
(iv) Cooperate with his counse.l to the end that any available defense may be interposed.

         [¶14] "Although the question of competency is a factual issue, the requirement that competency be established is a matter of law that is reviewed de novo." Wilson v. State, 2007 WY 55, ¶ 11, 155 P.3d 1009, 1011 (Wyo. 2007); see also deShazer v. State, 2003 WY 98, ¶ 12, 74 P.3d 1240, 1244-45 (Wyo. 2003). Further, "[i]f it appears at any stage of a criminal proceeding, by motion or upon the court's own motion, that there is reasonable cause to believe that the accused has a mental illness or deficiency making him unfit to proceed, all further proceedings shall be suspended" and the "court shall order an examination of the accused . . . ." Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-11-303(a) & (b) (LexisNexis 2017). "We apply the substantial evidence standard when reviewing a trial court's decision not to order a further competency evaluation." Marshall v. State, 2016 WY 119, ¶ 12, 385 P.3d 304, 308, (Wyo. 2016).

         [¶15] Mr. McLaren's competency was evaluated twice, once shortly after the information was filed and a second time before trial. He was found competent on both occasions. Nevertheless, on appeal, Mr. McLaren contends that the district court should have suspended his trial and sua sponte ordered another competency evaluation. To properly address Mr. McLaren's argument, we will examine the competency evaluations, his relationship with counsel, and his behavior leading to and during trial.

         Mr. McLaren's first competency evaluation

         [¶16] The information charging Mr. McLaren was filed in the circuit court on March 12, 2014. On March 17, 2014, Mr. McLaren's court-appointed defense counsel filed a Motion for Psychological Evaluation, stating that Mr. McLaren "does not appear to have the ability to assist counsel in his defense." The circuit court suspended proceedings and ordered an examination to determine Mr. McLaren's competency to proceed.

         [¶17] Dr. McCormick at the Wyoming State Hospital examined Mr. McLaren and found him fit to proceed. In her June 9, 2014 letter to the circuit court, Dr. McCormick concluded:

[T]his examiner is of the opinion the Defendant's preliminary primary diagnosis is Unspecified Dissociative Disorder (partial Dissociative Identity Disorder) with an important rule out of severe Borderline Personality Disorder.
The Defendant clearly has a history of abusing drugs, particularly more recently methamphetamines, and a remote history of abusing alcohol. His abuse of substances almost certainly exacerbates his dissociative tendencies. The Defendant also appears to meet criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, which is a common comorbid condition among those who experience problematic dissociative states, have a history of trauma, and recurrent substance abuse issues.
The Defendant is currently in a structured environment and does not have access to substances. He is also receiving medication for symptoms of depression. Moreover, there was no evidence or indication Mr. McLaren's mental health problems directly or grossly impacted his adjudicative capacities in a negative manner. Therefore, in conclusion, this examiner is of the opinion the Defendant does not lack the capacity to comprehend this position, understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, conduct his defense in a rational manner, or corroborate with his counsel to the end that any defense may be interposed.

         [¶18] The record does not reveal whether the circuit court found Mr. McLaren competent to proceed; however, it held a preliminary hearing and, on July 9, 2014, bound the case over for trial in the district court.

         Mr. McLaren's NGMI Evaluation

         [¶19] In November of 2014, Mr. McLaren changed his plea and entered an NGMI plea to all counts. The district court suspended proceedings and ordered an evaluation to determine whether Mr. McLaren "has a mental illness or deficiency" and whether "at the time of the alleged criminal conduct [Mr. McLaren], as a result of mental illness or deficiency, lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law, " in accordance with Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-11-304(f) (LexisNexis 2017).

         [¶20] Dr. McCormick also conducted this "NGMI" evaluation and submitted her findings in a report dated February 10, 2015. Dr. McCormick opined that, based upon reports of Mr. McLaren, the alleged victim, and law enforcement, "at the very least, Mr. McLaren was going in and out of a psychotic state around and at the time of the alleged offenses." However, she observed that despite this, "he did not provide a description that would suggest a strong link between his psychosis and the capacity to determine right from wrong and conform his conduct to the requirements of the law." Dr. McCormick also remarked that "his own recollections and observations by law enforcement suggest McLaren was undergoing a Methamphetamine-Induced Psychotic Episode." She concluded that "even if [his] capacities were compromised to a substantial degree, he would still not qualify for the NGMI defense since his mental state was self-induced by drugs."

         [¶21] The district court held a hearing regarding the NGMI evaluation in which it informed Mr. McLaren that he had the option to get a further evaluation if he desired. Mr. McLaren stated that he thought the report was "sloppy" because Dr. McCormick did not know whether he was charged with attempted second-degree murder or attempted first-degree murder. Mr. McLaren indicated that he would like another evaluation; the court instructed him to discuss the matter with his attorney and, if they determined another evaluation would be desirable, to "file something" quickly. The court set the trial for April, but informed Mr. McLaren that proceedings would have to be suspended if another evaluation was requested.

         Mr. McLaren's relationship with counsel and pretrial courtroom behavior

         [¶22] Approximately one month later, Mr. McLaren's attorney filed a motion to withdraw as counsel for Mr. McLaren. In support of that motion, the attorney stated that he and Mr. McLaren had "repeatedly discussed whether the proceedings should be delayed" to obtain an independent NGMI evaluation and that Mr. McLaren had "changed his mind several times." He also explained that at their most recent meeting, Mr. McLaren indicated that he wanted to represent himself, and that on previous occasions when Mr. McLaren had displayed a similar desire, he had agreed to allow the attorney's representation to continue. At the March 27, 2015 hearing on the motion, Mr. McLaren stated that he wanted to proceed with different counsel. He complained that his attorney had failed to file exculpatory evidence, failed to investigate, and failed to return his phone calls. Mr. McLaren expressed frustration regarding his attorney's opinion that he is mentally ill: "I get treated like I'm mentally ill and that my opinion doesn't matter, " and "Why do I have to be a lunatic here?" As the hearing progressed, Mr. McLaren stated, "I don't really want to change [counsel], your Honor. I just want a fair shake." Mr. McLaren then explained:

I want to be able to do an independent investigation to prove my innocence. There is [sic] mitigating circumstances here that will make this Court absolutely ill. There's a lot of money involved here.
I raised cats that are worth $35, 000 a piece, your Honor, and a lot of those cats are missing at this point. They have been missing. And then I'm hearing that this girl that -- this defendant -- or the person that I'm accused of doing this to, she's running around town selling cats that I -- that are from my stock, your Honor, selling them for 3 or $400, and my Euro connection buys these cats for $35, 000. Do you think that's justice? My 85-year-old mother is having to take care of these animals.
I mean, what's going on, your Honor, is a travesty of justice, and I cannot get any forward motion.

         Mr. McLaren's attorney indicated that he was willing to work with Mr. McLaren, but thought a competent defense required an independent NGMI evaluation, which required Mr. McLaren's consent. By the end of the hearing, Mr. McLaren agreed to request an independent evaluation and to cooperate with his attorney. His attorney moved for an independent NGMI evaluation, and the district court granted that motion and stayed proceedings until it could be conducted.[2]

         [¶23] In October of 2015, Mr. McLaren's attorney filed a second motion regarding his representation, informing the district court that Mr. McLaren wished to represent himself and have his attorney act as standby counsel. The court held another hearing regarding representation. Mr. McLaren's attorney and his supervisor attended. During that hearing, Mr. McLaren's attorney indicated that Mr. McLaren had again changed his position in that he now wanted a different attorney and that his relationship with Mr. McLaren was "breaking down."

         [¶24] Mr. McLaren complained about the lack of communication from his attorney and about the "ridiculous" plea agreement that his attorney had presented to him. He elaborated:

If he would have been treating me as a client that -- as a lawyer in good standing would, I would -- he would know more about what's going on with my case. I just asked him about a cat that's -- the base price of this cat is $200, 000. In his career over 10 years, he would make approximately 6 to $10 million. He's a high percentage F1, it's 80 percent serval.

         Mr. McLaren went on to describe his cat business and the effects of his incarceration on that business. He complained about his treatment at the state hospital and in jail, claiming that his back was "busted" and that the "off the charts" methane content at the jail was affecting his health. Mr. McLaren also disapproved his attorney's strategy regarding the NGMI plea. Mr. McLaren accused his attorney of lying to him, and changed his mind several times regarding representation, stating that he wanted to represent himself, that his attorney has an "awesome reputation" and would be his "best bet, " and that he would like his attorney's supervisor to represent him. The district court suggested that Mr. McLaren discuss his options with the supervising attorney, after which the court would reconvene the hearing. When the hearing reconvened two days later, Mr. McLaren agreed to work with his original attorney as lead counsel and the supervising attorney as second chair. At that hearing, while discussing his attorney's participation in his defense, Mr. McLaren related "the Sheriff's Office and Southwest Task Force are dirty in this up to their eyebrows. You know, I know for a fact that this -- this girl ran into a sign with her forehead . . . ."

         [¶25] On December 2, 2015, the district court held a hearing to address issues raised at the pretrial conference and heard several motions. At that hearing, Mr. McLaren declared that he would like to fire his attorney. He expressed frustration regarding his attorney "telling me I'm mentally ill." He asked if this is "[s]ome kind of kangaroo court?" and then explained, "I'm missing a $10 million breeder here, and it seems like the only thing you guys are interested in is a bunch of malarkey." The court denied Mr. McLaren's request to discharge his attorney. As the hearing progressed, the State began to discuss the victim's testimony and whether it would seek to admit prior consistent statements. Mr. McLaren became upset, interrupting the State's counsel, saying, "That's right, I'm pissed." State's counsel continued with his description of the victim's prior consistent statements. Shortly thereafter, the following exchange occurred:

[Prosecutor]: Your Honor, I -- I'm sorry to interject. Mr. McLaren has been trying to talk to ...

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