Ramirez v. State, Appellate Case No. 2015-002063 (filed 1/5/17), SC Supreme Court Clarifies Law for Incompetent Guilty Plea

The petitioner here is severely intellectually disabled.  His plea counsel failed to request an independent competency evaluation prior to his guilty plea.  Initially, the PCR judge denied relief.  The South Carolina Court of Appeals disagreed and found that trial counsel was ineffective but denied relief finding itself constrained under the “any evidence” standard that typically applies when the appellate courts review a PCR judge’s findings as to the prejudice prong.

In a case where a defendant’s competency is at issue, the law is this:

When a PCR applicant raises issues of competency in the context of a plea proceeding, the two-prong Strickland analysis still applies; however, because of the nature of the claim, proof of deficiency of counsel is intertwined with prejudice.  Specifically, when establishing Strickland prejudice in the context of plea counsel’s failure to request a mental competency evaluation, “the [applicant] need only show a ‘reasonable probability’ that he was …incompetent at the time of the plea.”  Jeter v. State, 308 S.C. 230, 233, 417 S.E.2d 594, 596 (1992) see also Matthews v. State, 358 S.C. 456, 458-60, 596 S.E.2d 49, 50-51 (2004) (expanding the reasonable probability standard as the burden for proving both the deficiency of counsel and the prejudice prongs) … “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.”  Gallman v. State, 307 S.C. 273, 276, 414 S.E.2d 780, 782 (1992).

The Court vacated Ramirez’s plea and remanded the case back to the court of general sessions.  Acting Chief Justice Pleicones dissented and found that an earlier report by a psychologist that Ramirez was competent supported the PCR judge’s finding that Ramirez was not prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to obtain an independent competency evaluation.  But, he also states that allowing Ramirez’s plea to stand in this case is “shocking to the universal sense of justice” and warrants Butler relief.  Butler v. State, 302 S.C. 466, 397 S.E.2d 87 (1990).