Estelle v. Smith, 451 U.S. 454 (1980)

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In this case, the defendant was charged with capital murder stemming from his participation in an armed robbery. The trial judge ordered a psychiatric exam to determine whether Estelle was competent to stand trial. After the defendant was tried and convicted, the doctor who conducted the pretrial examination testified for the state at the Sentencing hearing on the issue of whether Estelle would be a future danger to society. Pursuant to Texas law, the jury answered the ‘‘future dangerousness’’ question and two other required questions in the affirmative, and the judge imposed the mandatory death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Justice Burger, writing an opinion in that all justices joined or concurred, held that the admission of the doctor’s testimony violated Estelle’s Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination. The defendant was not advised prior to the psychiatric examination that he had a right to remain silent, and that any statement he made could be used against him at a capital Sentencing proceeding, as required by the famous case Miranda v. Arizona (1966). Moreover, Estelle was denied his Sixth Amendment right, as defense counsel was not notified that the competency examination would encompass the issue of future dangerousness, and the defendant had no opportunity to consult with his counsel in deciding whether to submit to the examination.

In the years since Estelle was rendered, it has been narrowed by two subsequent Supreme Court decisions. In Penry v. Johnson (2001), the Court held that where a defendant chooses to offer expert testimony regarding his mental condition at trial or Sentencing, earlier unwarned and uncounseled statements made to a psychiatrist may be used against him. In Allen v. Illinois (1986), the Court held five to four that use of psychiatric examinations in proceedings to commit individuals found to be ‘‘sexually dangerous persons’’ is not prohibited by the Fifth Amendment, as the proceedings are civil not criminal.


References and Further Reading

  • Comment, The Right to Counsel During Court-Ordered Psychiatric Examinations of Criminal Defendants, Villanova University Law Review 26 (1980): 135.
  • Cochran, Gregory R., Is the Shrink’s Role Shrinking? The Ambiguity of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.2 Concerning Government Psychiatric Testimony in Negativing Cases, University of Pennsylvania Law Review 147 (1999): 1403.
  • Wright, Charles. Federal Practice and Procedure. 3rd ed. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 1999, and 2003 pocket part.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Allen v. Illinois, 478 U.S. 364 (1986)
  • Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)
  • Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782 (2001)

See also Capital Punishment; Capital Punishment and the Equal Protection Clause Cases; Capital Punishment: Due Process Limits; Capital Punishment: History and Politics; Capital Punishment Reversed; Capital Punishment and Race; Self-Incrimination (V): Historical Background