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Ramirez v. State

Supreme Court of South Carolina

January 5, 2017

Ruben Ramirez, Petitioner,
State of South Carolina, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2015-002063

          Heard November 7, 2016


         Appeal From Greenville County The Honorable G. Edward Welmaker, Post-Conviction Relief Judge


          Appellate Defender Wanda H. Carter, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Assistant Attorney General James Clayton Mitchell, III, and Senior Assistant Attorney General Karen Christine Ratigan, all of Columbia, for Respondent.

          HEARN JUSTICE.

         The issue before us is whether a severely mentally retarded individual should be afforded post-conviction relief (PCR) where his plea counsel failed to request an independent competency evaluation prior to his guilty plea. The PCR court denied relief, finding plea counsel was not deficient nor was Ramirez prejudiced by counsel's representation. Although the court of appeals disagreed that plea counsel was not deficient, the court affirmed based on its application of the "any evidence" standard to the PCR court's prejudice finding. We now affirm in part and reverse in part, upholding the court of appeals' finding of deficiency but reversing its finding as to lack of prejudice to Ramirez.


         Ramirez was sixteen years old when he was indicted for assault and battery with intent to kill, kidnapping, first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor, first-degree burglary, and lewd act upon a child. Upon an order from the circuit judge, Ramirez was sent to the Department of Mental Health for an evaluation of his competency to stand trial.[1]

         Dr. Mayank H. Dalal conducted the examination, basing his finding of competency on an hour and a half forensic interview with Ramirez and a review of victim statements, police reports, photographs, and Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) records. According to Dr. Dalal's report, Ramirez denied having any history of medical or psychological problems. Additionally, Ramirez indicated he was only in the eighth grade and received mostly C's and D's. Dr. Dalal also noted Ramirez exhibited certain speech difficulties, had difficulty reading the words "solicitor, " "evaluation, " and "competency, " and struggled to remember the name of his attorney. Moreover, despite acknowledging the serious nature of the charges against him, Ramirez believed he was only facing "up to a few years in [D]J]."[2]Nevertheless, Dr. Dalal concluded Ramirez had "sufficient factual and rational understanding of the charges against him, " and was therefore competent to stand trial. In reaching this conclusion, Dr. Dalal did not review any collateral sources, nor did he perform any psychological testing or consider a psychological diagnosis.

         Following his review of Dr. Dalal's report, plea counsel requested that Ramirez undergo a psychological examination with Dr. Stephen M. Gedo. According to plea counsel, he sought a second opinion because he was concerned Ramirez did not fully understand the gravity of his offenses or the charges he faced. Dr. Gedo met with Ramirez five times, with each appointment lasting between three and four hours. In addition to a clinical interview, Dr. Gedo based his conclusions on a number of psychological tests, Ramirez's medical records, and collateral interviews conducted with Ramirez's family to obtain historical information Ramirez may not have been able to accurately convey due to his intellectual limitations. In particular, Dr. Gedo noted Ramirez had been mentally retarded from birth, did not begin speaking until he was seven years old, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) when he was nine, and had only completed eighth grade by the time he was sixteen.

         Based on his observations, Dr. Gedo concluded Ramirez had poor judgment and an impaired ability to regulate his impulses. Dr. Gedo also found Ramirez to be highly malleable, easily confused, and suffering limitations across the entire range of cognitive function, resulting in severely limited language and reading comprehension skills. Furthermore, Dr. Gedo determined Ramirez had a general IQ level between thirty-one and forty-four, falling within the range of Severe Mental Retardation, [3] and was functioning at the intellectual level of a four to seven year old child. In conclusion, Dr. Gedo diagnosed Ramirez with an adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct, severe mental retardation, and a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of thirty-five out of one hundred.[4] However, Dr. Gedo rendered no opinion as to Ramirez's competency to stand trial.

         Ultimately, Ramirez pled guilty but mentally ill to all the charges. Both the Dalal evaluation and the Gedo report were submitted into evidence on the issue of whether Ramirez was mentally ill at the time the crimes were committed, but there was no request for a further competency evaluation. The circuit judge accepted Ramirez's plea, noting his "IQ level [was] as low as any [the judge had] ever seen." Ramirez was sentenced to concurrent twenty-year terms for all charges, except the lewd act on a minor for which ...

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