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Justices Rule in Nevada Case to Reinstate Confessor’s Murder Conviction

June 24, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Criminal defendants must be allowed to plead guilty or waive their right to a lawyer as long as they are mentally competent to stand trial, the Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 7-2 decision, the court reinstated the murder convictions and death sentence of a Nevada man who confessed to killing three people, including his ex-wife.

The justices reversed a ruling that had said defendants wanting to waive their constitutional rights to a trial or legal help must show a higher level of mental functioning than mere competence to stand trial.

″While the decision to plead guilty is undeniably a profound one, it is no more complicated than the sum total of decisions that a defendant may be called upon to make during the course of a trial,″ Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.

″This being so, we can conceive of no basis for demanding a higher level of competence for those defendants who choose to plead guilty,″ Thomas wrote, adding that such a waiver must be knowing and voluntary.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote in dissent that the guilty plea by Nevada defendant Richard Allen Moran ″well may have been the product of medication or mental illness.″

″To try, convict and punish one so helpless to defend himself contravenes fundamental principles of fairness and impugns the integrity of our criminal justice system,″ Blackmun wrote for himself and Justice John Paul Stevens.

Moran pleaded guilty to gunning down two people, Sandra Devere and Russell Rhoades, during an Aug. 2, 1984, robbery of the Red Pearl Saloon in Las Vegas. He also admitted fatally shooting his ex-wife, Linda Vandervoort, nine days later.

After the killings, Moran attempted suicide by shooting himself in the abdomen and trying to slit his wrists. When he pleaded guilty, he was recovering from the suicide attempt and was taking four prescribed drugs.

Moran also refused a lawyer’s help at his sentencing.

Moran later tried to withdraw his guilty pleas, saying he was incompetent to plead guilty and proceed without a lawyer. State courts and a federal judge ruled against him, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said last July that he must be given a trial.

Criminal defendants may be ruled competent to stand trial if they understand the proceedings and are capable of assisting their lawyer.

But the 9th Circuit court said defendants who want to waive constitutional rights must show a higher level of mental functioning than that. Such defendants also must have ″the capacity for reasoned choice″ among the available alternatives, the appeals court said.

Today, the Supreme Court disagreed.

Defendants who plead guilty give up their constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, the right to a jury trial and the right to confront their accusers, Thomas wrote.

Those who choose to stand trial face equally important decisions, Thomas wrote, including whether to testify, whether to cross-examine prosecution witnesses and what kind of defense to mount.

Defendants who want to waive their right to a lawyer must be mentally competent to make that decision, but they do not have to show they are prepared to represent themselves, he added.

States may require a higher level of mental competence for such waivers, but the Constitution’s due-process guarantees do not require it, Thomas said.

The case is Godinez vs. Moran, 92-725.

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