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What is Substantial Evidence of Mental Incompetence?

The California Supreme Court recently weighed in on what can be substantial evidence of mental incompetence sufficient for a judge to be obligated to suspend proceedings and initiate competency proceedings under Penal Code §§ 1368 and 1369.
The Gist of this Article: Substantial evidence of mental incompetence sufficient for a judge to suspend proceeding under Penal Code § 1368 includes a psychologist report based on three interviews with defendant and a fifteen-page, single-spaced report opining that defendant was incompetent to stand trial or assist in his defense.
In 2006, in a house in El Cerrito in Contra Costa County, Julie and Paul Rogers were murdered.  Two of their children were home at the time and were awaken by the sound of a struggle.  Eric, age 17, looked into the hallway and saw a large-framed person, dressed in black and a motorcycle helmet.  That person was Edward Matthew WyCoff, who stood six feet, five inches tall and weighed over 300 pounds.

WyCoff was struggling with another person, who Eric realized was one of his parents.  Eric called the police. 

When the noise of the struggle subsided, Eric and his sister, Laurel, age 12, found their father face down in his bedroom with a knife in his back.  Their father was still alive and identified the large man as their uncle.

About this time, police arrived.  They asked Paul who stabbed him and he told the police the same thing as he told his kids.  Police then followed a trail of blood out the sliding glass door leading to the backyard and found Julie bleeding profusely by the swimming pool, but still alive.  She had a large wound in her abdomen, exposing her intestines.  She was transported to the hospital, but efforts to save her life were unsuccessful.

California Supreme Court San Francisco

Defendant WyCoff was arrested a few hours later at a hospital near his house.  The next day, officers admonished him under Miranda (Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436) and then interviewed him.  WyCoff then confessed that he had committed the murders and that he had planned them in advance.  He explained that Julie and Paul “were really bad, rotten people.”  Paul “was a communist” and “way over to the left.”  Julie and Paul were lax parents who drank in front of their children, maintained a filthy house and neglected their dogs.  WyCoff thought that after killing Julie and Paul, he could “offer the kids to come live with him” and “raise them right.”

WyCoff was Julie’s brother and told police also about various grievances he had with how she had divided her father’s estate and how Julie had provided bad care to an elderly aunt.

WyCoff was then charged with first-degree murder of his sister and brother-in-law (Penal Code § 187).  WyCoff was unable to cooperate with counsel and sought to represent himself.  During pretrial proceedings, a judge appointed Dr. Paul Good, an expert in forensic psychology, to examine WyCoff.

WyCoff issued a report stating that, due to “severe mental illness,” WyCoff had a misperception of [his lawyers’] motives, a misunderstanding of the risk involved [in his case], a minimizing of the precariousness of his predicament, and impaired judgment.”  The report added: “Because of his grandiosity, [defendant] is not able to rationally consider ‘telling his story’ with the assistance of an attorney.  On this ground, I find him incompetent to stand trial.”

The trial judge rejected Dr. Good’s opinion without initiating competency proceedings as provided in Penal Code §§ 1368 and 1369 and concluded WyCoff was mentally competent.

WyCoff then represented himself and the jury found him guilty of both counts of murder, sentencing him to death for each of the murders.

WyCoff’s appeal was automatic. 

The California Supreme Court then reversed the verdict.  It pointed out that the government argued Dr. Good’s report did not amount to substantial evidence of mental incompetence.  The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that Dr. Good’s opinion was supported by three interviews with defendant, a thorough psychiatric history, appropriate psychological testing and detailed reasoning in which he made clear the factual basis for his conclusions.  While Dr. Good did not testify under oath, he gave his opinion in a formal, signed, fifteen-page, single-spaced report addressed directly to the judge trying the case.  Therefore, the judge was required to initiate competency procedures in accordance with Penal Code §§ 1368 and 1369 because Dr. Good raised a reasonable doubt as to competence.

We read this opinion for what we recognize may have been the judge’s loss of patience with Mr. WyCoff.  Mr. WyCoff was aloof and arrogant toward the judicial process, which was perhaps seen as disrespectful toward the judge and therefore, the judge did not regard WyCoff as much mentally incompetent as simply defiant of our laws and the judicial process, which he no doubt was.  We understand this exact situation, as in today’s world, many defendants simply lack respect for the judicial process, but are not incompetent.

The citation for the California Supreme Court ruling discussed above is People v. Edward Matthew WyCoff (2021) 12 Cal. 5th 58, 283 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1, 493 P.3d 789.

For more information about Penal Code § 1368 issues, please click on the following articles:

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