Appeals court upholds conviction in Flagstaff police officer’s murder
A federal appeals court Wednesday upheld Eric Michael Clark’s conviction in the 2000 murder of Flagstaff Police Officer Jeffrey Moritz, who was gunned down after a traffic stop.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Clark’s arguments that his trial and appellate attorneys were ineffective for not properly pursuing his claim of mental incompetence.
Clark, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, argued at trial that he believed aliens had invaded Flagstaff and taken over the bodies of government agents, including police. His trial was delayed for years while he underwent treatment to become competent to stand trial.
His current attorney said she was disappointed by the ruling.
“This poor kid,” said Carla Ryan, the attorney. “Well, he’s not a kid anymore, but it’s just such a sad story.”
The Arizona Attorney General’s office did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
The case began on June 21, 2000, when Moritz responded to early-morning complaints of a pickup truck circling a residential block and blaring loud music. After spotting the truck, Moritz turned on the lights and siren of his marked patrol car and Clark, who was driving the truck, pulled over.
Within a minute, however, Clark had shot Moritz at close range, then run away. Moritz died soon after. Clark was found later that day with gunpowder residue on his hands, and the murder weapon was found stuffed in a knit cap nearby.
Clark was charged with first-degree murder for killing a law enforcement officer, but court-appointed psychological experts said he was not competent to stand trial.
After six months of treatment at a state hospital, the court’s experts said in late 2001 that he was competent, but Clark’s own experts disagreed. More treatment was ordered and he began taking injections of Haldol, an antipsychotic drug that experts said were “probably helping him.”
By May 2003, the court concluded that Clark was competent to stand trial. He was convicted Sept. 3, 2003, of first-degree murder after an 11-day, non-jury trial and sentenced to life, with possibility of release after 25 years.
The trial judge allowed defense attorneys to present evidence of Clark’s competence, but relied on a narrow state court interpretation of the insanity defense in finding him guilty.
“There is so much that could have been done and wasn’t done at the trial stage,” Ryan said.
The case subsequently went to the Supreme Court, which said the state’s competency law was too narrow. But the majority in that case also said “we cannot be sure” the judge in Clark’s trial improperly restricted evidence.
One argument in the latest appeal was that Clark’s trial lawyer should have preserved evidence of his mental state. The appeal also argued that his trial lawyers should have asked for a re-evaluation of Clark’s competency after they noticed he appeared to sleep in part of the trial and “may not be following what’s occurring.”
But the appeals court said that trial lawyers did seek to get Clark back on his medications during trial. And it noted that even the Supreme Court could not say whether the competency evidence presented by the trial attorneys was considered by the judge.
“If the Supreme Court itself was uncertain what the state court had considered, it was not deficient performance for Clark’s counsel to believe that the state court had considered all of the relevant evidence” of his competence, the circuit court said.
Ryan said Wednesday that she is not sure about next steps but is weighing her options.
“It’s just a real disservice,” Ryan said. “He really did believe there were aliens.”