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In re Vauter

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 15, 2016





          In this original jurisdiction case, we consider whether a writ of prohibition lies to prevent a circuit court from hearing a habeas corpus petition challenging a pre-trial detention order entered by a different circuit court pursuant to Code § 19.2-169.3(F).


         On October 4, 2000, a grand jury for the City of Alexandria indicted Gregory Devon Murphy (Murphy) for capital murder of a child, in violation of Code § 18.2-31(12), and two counts of malicious wounding, in violation of Code § 18.2-51. On October 19, 2000, Murphy assaulted his attorney in open court, prompting the Circuit Court of the City of Alexandria (Alexandria Court) to order a competency evaluation under the then-current version of Code § 19.2-169.1.[1] In a report delivered on October 31, the examining psychologist opined that Murphy was not competent to stand trial, but that "[i]t is possible that appropriate mental health treatment, including the administration of antipsychotic medications, may eventually restore Mr. Murphy's capacities in these regards." The court ordered Murphy's competency to be restored.

         Murphy has received treatment continuing to the present. The Alexandria Court has conducted periodic reviews pursuant to Code § 19.2-169.3(F), each time finding Murphy incompetent to stand trial.[2] Murphy receives treatment in Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County.

         In 2007, Murphy moved the Alexandria Court to dismiss the capital murder indictment on the ground that Code § 19.2-169.3(F) is unconstitutional. On September 26, 2007, the court found the statute constitutional and denied the motion. It explained that while

the statute probably could have been a little more clear . . . . Clearly the goal here was a procedure whereby the charges are not to be dismissed, so long as the other provisions of the statute are being complied with, and that is that there be periodic hearings; that there be evidence that the defendant remains incompetent; that there be evidence that the treatment is medically appropriate; and that there be evidence that the defendant is dangerous, all of which we have in this case.

         It continued that the evidence is "uncontroverted that Mr. Murphy remains incompetent, that the medical treatment is appropriate, and there's evidence that he continues to be a threat to others."[3]

         The court also found that the periodic reviews satisfy Murphy's due process rights. Additionally, the court found that there was no equal protection violation because the legislature was entitled to distinguish between defendants charged with capital and non-capital offenses. Finally, the court found that the statute did not violate the prohibition of ex post facto laws because, although Code § 19.2-169.3 changed during Murphy's detention, it was a procedural change that did not infringe on any of Murphy's vested rights.

         On May 30, 2014, Murphy again moved to dismiss the capital murder indictment and for an order directing the Commonwealth to pursue civil commitment on the ground that his current detention was unconstitutional. He argued that because he was "unrestorably incompetent, " restoration treatment was no longer medically appropriate to justify his continued detention under Code § 19.2-169.3(F)(iii).

         He also argued that Code § 19.2-169.3(F) violates the constitutional protections established by Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 738 (1972), "that 'the State must either institute the customary civil commitment proceedings that would be required to commit indefinitely any other citizen [not charged with a crime] or release the defendant.'" He claimed that Code § 19.2-169.3(F) impermissibly permits the "indefinite detention of unrestorably incompetent defendants charged with capital murder without prospect of release in the community, " which "amounts to punishment without adjudication of guilt."

         On September 5, 2014, the Commonwealth and Murphy stipulated that Murphy is "unrestorably incompetent to assist counsel and to have a rational understanding of the proceedings, " and on September 8, the Alexandria Court issued a "Continuance Order and Finding of Unrestorabilty" regarding Murphy's motion to dismiss. After a hearing on the record, the court issued a letter opinion on November 6, 2014, affirming the constitutionality of the statute, and finding that Murphy remained a danger to himself and others, and that "the treatment [he] is receiving is medically appropriate." By order on November 17, 2014, the court found that "Murphy remains incompetent to stand trial, that continued treatment is medically appropriate, and that the defendant presents a danger to himself and others, " and ordered continued treatment under Code § 19.2-169.2.[4]

         On April 22, 2015, Murphy filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of Dinwiddie County (Dinwiddie Court), arguing that the Director was detaining him without lawful authority (Dinwiddie Petition). He argued that the Alexandria Court wrongfully found that continued treatment was medically appropriate under Code § 19.2-169.3(F). Specifically, he claimed that he does not meet criterion (iii) of that section, which is that "continued treatment" be "medically necessary, " because it is undisputed that he is unrestorably incompetent, and the word "treatment" is "plainly construed as 'treatment to restore medical competency.'" He argued that his continued detention violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution of the United States. He asked the Dinwiddie Court to order the Alexandria Court to dismiss the capital murder indictment and begin civil commitment proceedings.

         The Director moved to dismiss the Dinwiddie Petition, arguing that the Dinwiddie Court lacked jurisdiction under Code § 8.01-654(B)(1).[5] The Dinwiddie Court rejected that argument, finding that Code § 8.01-654(B)(1) only applies when there is both criminal process and a conviction, but when, like here, there is not a conviction, Code § 8.0l-654(A)(1) permits the petition to be filed in any circuit court.

         The Director moved for reconsideration. On September 23, 2015, the Dinwiddie Court entered orders memorializing its rulings denying the ...

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