Saturday, February 1, 2014

Three Days of the Probate

State v. Zorn, 2013 VT 65.

Ever felt like the world is against you?  So does today’s defendant, who takes grand delusions to a whole new level.  He also brings new meaning to the phrase “the dangers of practicing probate law.”

Defendant was the subject of a contested estate matter brought by his brothers through their attorney, Herbert Ogden.  On March 30, 2011, defendant marched into Attorney Ogden’s office, demanded money he believed was owed him, punched Attorney Ogden, and tried to place him under arrest.  After being asked several times to leave, defendant finally stalked out.  Attorney Ogden called the police.

That same day, the police pulled defendant over.  Defendant immediately got out of his car, walked toward the police, and ignored their commands to get on his knees and then lie prone.  The police tased him, then took him into custody.

The next day, defendant was arraigned on one count of simple assault and resisting arrest.  A social worker who had screened defendant prior to the arraignment testified that she believed defendant was in need of mental evaluation.  The judge ordered an inpatient competency evaluation.  A week later, Dr. Paul Cotton at the Vermont State Hospital evaluated defendant and issued a report.

Dr. Cotton determined that defendant had a “psychotic disorder characterized by delusional belief and disorganized thought process.”  Defendant believed that a number of people, including his brothers, Attorney Ogden, and the judge hearing the probate matter, were conspiring against him to forge his mother’s will, take her off life support, and rob him of his legal rights.  Defendant also believed Dr. Cotton, who was clearly on the State’s payroll, was unfit to examine him.  Unsurprisingly, Dr. Cotton’s report concluded that defendant’s “preoccupation with his persistent delusional beliefs” rendered him incompetent to stand trial.

The Court held a competency hearing in June, adopted Dr. Cotton’s findings, and set the matter for a hospitalization hearing in August.  Several days before the hearing, defendant named the trial court judge as one of several defendants in a federal civil suit.  Defendant then played hooky at his hospitalization hearing, though he claimed he never received notice for it.  The hearing was reset for December, with the trial court judge presiding. 

About a week before the new hearing, defendant moved to recuse trial court judge from his case.  An administrative judge denied his motion because he had not made a clear showing of bias.

Defendant underwent a second evaluation before the hearing.  Dr. Cotton again concluded that defendant was still incompetent to stand trial.  Defendant was unable focus on anything but his delusions during the evaluation.  Defendant insisted that virtually everyone, the police, the courts, Attorney Ogden, and Dr. Cotton, were out to get him, and that they all wanted to violate his legal rights.

At the hospitalization hearing, the trial court concluded on the basis of Dr. Cotton’s report and his testimony, and Attorney Ogden’s testimony that defendant had left him a threatening voicemail, that defendant’s assault was related to the probate matter, and that his inability to exercise self-control or judgment regarding the foci of his conspiracy (namely everyone that had ever wronged him legally) made him a danger to those individuals.  The court concluded defendant was a “person in need of treatment” and ordered him hospitalized for up to 90 days.  Defendant appealed.

On appeal, defendant raises two arguments.  First, defendant claims that the trial court wrongly ordered him hospitalized because there was insufficient evidence to support a connection between his mental illness and his assault on Attorney Ogden.  To reach that conclusion the trial court had to find that clear and convincing evidence indicated defendant was insane at the time of the offense, or incompetent to stand trial, and that his mental illness rendered him harmful to himself or others because he could not exercise appropriate self-control or judgment.

Defendant’s argument on this point is that, because Dr. Cotton testified regarding his competency to stand trial, but did not opine as to whether his dangerousness was caused by his mental illness, the trial court could not have concluded he was in need of treatment.  The SCOV notes that, where the trial court has to infer some fact(s) in support of its conclusion, the presumption is that the trial court got it right. 

Though the SCOV acknowledges that Dr. Cotton didn’t say much about defendant’s dangerousness, or its relation to his mental illness, there was plenty of evidence to support the court’s conclusion.  Dr. Cotton testified that defendant had targeted a bunch of people in his beliefs that they were conspiring against him.  He also testified that defendant had an “active” mental disease when he assaulted Attorney Ogden, and that he had difficulty conforming his conduct to the law both in Attorney Ogden’s office and later when the police pulled him over.  Dr. Cotton made a direct tie between defendant’s violent behavior and his mental illness, the SCOV concludes, and the trial court’s findings that led to its hospitalization order were therefore sufficiently supported by the evidence.

Second, defendant argues that the trial court judge should have been disqualified because she was included in the class of people at risk of harm because of defendant’s dangerous behavior.  The SCOV initially dismisses this claim as improperly raised for the first time on appeal.  Defendant argues that he didn’t know she needed to recuse until she ruled against him at the hospitalization hearing.  The SCOV calls this a bluff, and notes that defendant had sued the trial court judge prior to the hearing, and it was public information that the trial court judge, one of the subjects of his delusions, was assigned to his case.  Even though defendant made a motion to the administrative judge, he did not appeal the judge’s denial.  Sorry, says the SCOV: you snooze, you lose.

But, hey, the SCOV says, let’s go ahead and look at the merits of your claim anyway, just to prove you wrong.  The SCOV notes that being the subject of a party’s prejudice does not automatically disqualify a judge from hearing the case—the party has to show bias or prejudice directed against him.  Disqualification, even where a defendant puts the judge on his personal hit list, requires “exceptional circumstances” that would cause a disinterested observer to say “hey, that judge can’t be impartial.”  A reasonable person looking at defendant’s conspiracy rants directed at the trial court judge could easily conclude that the trial court judge could impartially determine whether defendant was in need of hospitalization.

Too bad for defendant—his hospitalization, at this point, is long over, but the SCOV denies him even a pyrrhic victory.  We can only hope that his stay did him some good.  After all, it does no one any good to turn a probate hearing into the Parallax View.  


  1. Wow, the Parallax View? Nicely played.

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