The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to review the case of Teofilo Medina, who is on Death Row for the execution-style killings of three Orange County convenience store clerks in 1984.
The high court agreed to use Medina's case to decide whether a prosecutor should have to prove that a defendant is mentally competent to stand trial. If the court rules the burden of proving competency rests with the prosecution, it could have the effect of overturning Medina's conviction and sentencing.
The case poses the possibility of a substantial change in current practice in California courts, where it is left to defense attorneys to show that their clients are not mentally capable of going to trial.
The Supreme Court turned down the appeal of Death Row inmate Brett Pensinger, an Orange County resident who was convicted of kidnaping a 5-month-old girl in Parker, Ariz., and mutilating and fatally battering her in the San Bernardino County desert. Pensinger drove off with the girl and her 5-year-old brother. The boy was found safe.
In the Medina case, the defendant's lawyers argued that it should not be up to them to prove that he was mentally incompetent.
"How can an incompetent person prove he's incompetent?" asked James D. Stone, the Anaheim lawyer who represented Medina in his Orange County Superior Court trial in 1986.
Defense attorneys sought to have Medina declared incompetent before his trial, but they lost. Jurors convicted him in October, 1986, of three first-degree murder counts, plus special circumstances of multiple murder, robbery and burglary.
Sentencing Medina to death four months later, Superior Court Judge James K. Turner called his crimes "cruel, depraved and violent" and said the case represented "a classic, textbook example of why there is a need for the death penalty."
Medina was convicted of murdering two young men working at two Santa Ana gas stations and a third at a Garden Grove drive-through dairy during a three-week spree in the fall of 1984, soon after being paroled from an Arizona prison where he had been serving time for rape.
His murder of a fourth clerk in Corona was not part of the case, but was introduced to jurors during the penalty phase of the trial.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Holly D. Wilkens, who is representing the Orange County district attorney's office on appeal, said that in California state courts, it is up to defense attorneys to prove their clients are mentally incompetent. In some other states and in all federal courts, prosecutors bear the burden of proving competence, she said.
It is best to leave those arguments to defense attorneys, she said, because they are privy to intimate details of their clients' lives. A host of constitutional protections make it difficult for prosecutors to obtain information about a defendant, she said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, who prosecuted Medina, said forcing prosecutors to prove a defendant mentally competent would place a tremendous burden on taxpayers and bog down an already overcrowded court calendar.
"It would have a tremendous impact," Brown said. "All a defendant would have to do is say, 'I'm incompetent,' and the prosecutor would have to go through a long, expensive hearing."
The high court could overturn the Medina conviction and sentencing, let it stand or rule that proving mental competency does rest with the prosecution but not make it retroactive.
Myrna Raeder, a Los Angeles lawyer who is chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s committee on the rules of criminal procedure and evidence, said making prosecutors prove mental competence as another element of their case shows respect for an accused person's rights.
"We don't put someone on trial for their life unless we can show that everything, including the required state of mind, is present," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story