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Drope v. Missouri - 420 U.S. 162, 95 S. Ct. 896 (1975)

Rule:

Evidence of a defendant's irrational behavior, his demeanor at trial, and any prior medical opinion on competence to stand trial are all relevant in determining whether further inquiry is required, but even one of these factors standing alone may, in some circumstances, be sufficient. 

Facts:

Prior to trial in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis, Missouri, on an indictment charging Drope and others with raping Drope's wife, Drope, who was tried separately, filed a motion for a continuance for psychiatric examination and treatment, attaching a psychiatrist's report which noted irrational acts of Drope and concluded that he needed psychiatric treatment. The trial court denied the motion, and on the first day of the trial, Drope's wife testified as a prosecution witness, stating that she had hesitated about pressing the prosecution until Drope had tried to choke her to death a few days before the trial. Drope, who was on bail, failed to appear on the second day of the trial, having shot himself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt and was hospitalized. But the trial judge directed defense counsel to proceed in the absence of Drope and denied a motion for a mistrial. Drope was convicted, and the trial court denied his motion for a new trial holding that Drope's absence from the trial was due to his own voluntary act. After the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the conviction, Drope filed post-conviction proceedings in the trial court, seeking to vacate the conviction on the grounds that his constitutional rights had been violated by the failure to order a psychiatric examination prior to trial and by conducting the trial to its conclusion in his absence. The trial court denied relief, and the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed. 

Issue:

Did the trial court err in rejecting Drope's post-conviction claims that he was denied due process?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States held that Drope's due process right to a fair trial was violated by the trial court's failure to suspend the trial pending a psychiatric examination to determine Drope's competence to stand trial, since the wife's testimony, the psychiatrist's report, and Drope's attempted suicide were sufficient indicia of incompetency to require such examination. In view of the trial court's failure to inquire into Drope's mental competency, there was no basis for determining whether Drope had effectively waived his right to be present at his trial, assuming that such right could be waived. Drope's due process rights could not be adequately protected by merely remanding for a psychiatric examination aimed at establishing whether Drope was in fact competent at the time of the trial approximately 6 1/2 years earlier, the state being free to retry Drope if he was competent at the time of such trial.

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