A federal appeals panel ruled that Mississippi used an unfair process to evaluate the mental competency of death row inmate Robert Simon Jr. and ordered a federal judge to take another look at Simon’s case.
As a result of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel’s ruling, which was released Thursday, Simon will get an independent mental evaluation and a chance to argue in court his mental incompetence, Simon’s attorney, Tom Freeland of Oxford, said.
“We expect the District Court to allow time for an independent evaluation of what Robert’s condition is and to hold a hearing” on the results of the examination, Freeland said.
Freeland said the three-judge appeals panel clearly found the handling of Simon’s case in the Mississippi courts “didn’t allow for due process as required by the Constitution.”
Simon was sentenced to death for the 1990 killings of three members of a Quitman County family. He received a life sentence in the death of a fourth family member. A 5th Circuit panel stopped Simon’s execution last May because of questions about the procedure and directed attorneys to file briefs on the mental evaluation issue.
Earlier, in April, the Mississippi Supreme Court had temporarily delayed Simon’s execution to give prosecutors and the defense time to review Simon’s medical records. That ruling came amid a claim by Simon’s attorney that the inmate had suffered a fall and could not understand his case and had trouble carrying on conversations.
Court records show Simon was found unconscious in his cell on Jan. 7, 2001. He spent several days in the hospital at the State Penitentiary at Parchman. He was examined by mental health experts chosen by the prison.
The Mississippi court denied Simon’s request to be evaluated by his own mental health expert. Instead, Simon relied on an affidavit from a mental health expert who reviewed Simon’s medical records. That expert reported the medical records indicated Simon may have suffered some neuropsychological damage from the fall. The expert said a complete mental evaluation would determine how much damage Simon suffered.
The attorney general’s office responded with affidavits from the two prison-selected experts.
The Mississippi court ruled Simon’s medical records showed no sign of impairment. A federal judge sided with the state in a May 2011 decision. Simon appealed to the 5th Circuit.
The three-judge panel said it was difficult to view the process as fair when Simon was not allowed a mental evaluation from someone other than a prison expert. The panelists said they weren’t asserting that prisoners are entitled to experts to prove their incompetence, but that the procedure allowing only one side to present expert evaluations “violated fundamental fairness and due process.”
“The competency evaluation must at all times be a process that is fundamentally fair to the prisoner alleging his own incompetence, and the process Simon received did not meet that standard,” they said.
Attorney General Jim Hood was not immediately available for comment.
In May, Hood said if Simon got a new mental evaluation based on the fall, Mississippi could expect more such claims from death row inmates.
“We’re going to see a rash of knot heads at Parchman,” Hood told The Associated Press. “We’ll have to put cameras into every cell on death row because they are all going to claim they fell and bumped their head.”
Last May, the 5th Circuit panel said it was concerned the deficiencies in Simon’s petition resulted from the state’s refusal to allow an evaluation of Simon by a doctor hired by the defense.
Hood said then that it appeared the 5th Circuit was given more information than it could digest in a short time, and that was partly the fault of defense attorneys who waited until the last minute to file Simon’s petition.
Simon, now 47, was convicted and sentenced to death in the slayings of Carl Parker; Parker’s wife, Bobbie Jo; and their 12-year-old son, Gregory. They were killed a few hours after returning to their rural Quitman County home from church services.
Simon also was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of 9-year-old Charlotte Parker, daughter of the slain couple.
Also convicted in the killings was Anthony Carr, now 45, who also is on death row.
This is not the first time Mississippi death row inmates have claimed they were denied access to their own mental health experts.
Attorneys for Edwin Hart Turner had argued a state policy dating to the 1990s prevented Turner from getting independent tests and exams that could prove he was mentally ill. Turner was executed in February.