An article by Terry Maroney, “Emotional Competence, ‘Rational Understanding,’ and the Criminal Defendant” (43 American Criminal Law Review 1375, 2006) was cited three times in a concurring opinion by Justice Helen M. Meyer and endorsed by Justice Paul H. Anderson.
Professor Maroney’s article argued that severe emotional dysfunction, including depression, provides as sound a basis for an incompetence finding as does cognitive dysfunction, such as a delusional disorder. The Minnesota Justices agreed. “Severe depressive episodes could so affect a person’s appreciation of the consequences that the person has no motivation to protect his or her own self-interest. …Mania can cause a person to overestimate his or her personal abilities, and thus, changes of success; further, people experiencing mania are more prone to impulsive and risky choices… [and] both types of depression can greatly alter an individual’s perception of reality, ” Justice Meyer wrote, citing Professor Maroney’s article. She therefore sought to “bring awareness to the wide range of effects that depression could have on a defendant’s ability to ‘consult with a reasonable degree of rational understanding with defense counsel.’”
The defendant, Dario Bonga, had pleaded guilty to first-degree premeditated murder in 1999. While awaiting trial, he was allowed to dismiss his court-appointed counsel and represent himself. He then confessed to the crime. The following morning, he attempted suicide; he was treated at a hospital and prescribed anti-depressant medication; and the next day, before beginning to take the medication, he was permitted to plead guilty.
The Court ruled on procedural grounds that Bonga was entitled to seek postconviction relief. In their concurring opinion, Justices Meyer and Anderson also expressed their concern that the lower court, and Bonga’s defense attorneys, had paid insufficient attention to the danger that Bonga’s competence to represent himself and plead guilty had been compromised by depression.