I received a phone call from a private defense attorney, Mr. Barr, asking me to interview his client, Eugene, who had recently been arrested for violating a restraining order that was filed by his girlfriend and for subsequently assaulting her. Mr. Barr said Eugene was mentally confused throughout their conversation. He mumbled to himself, with the attorney suspecting that Eugene was hearing voices and responding to them. Mr. Barr felt his client was not in any state to face the charges against him, and should be sent to a hospital. Technically speaking, he was asking me to evaluate whether Eugene was competent to stand trial.
After completing a thorough assessment, I concluded that Eugene was psychotic, but competent to stand trial. When I informed Mr. Barr of my conclusion, he was, to say the least, surprised and more than a bit irritated. He wanted to know how someone could be “so crazy” yet capable of facing serious criminal charges. I had suspected he might react with some surprise, but not this degree of bewilderment. Mr. Barr is an experienced civil attorney. Unfortunately, he had almost no exposure to criminal law, other than from what he learned in law school. He is a friend of Eugene’s family and took the case at their request. He was clearly confused about the standard for competency to stand trial.
It is confounding to think that someone with symptoms like auditory hallucinations can still be mentally competent to stand trial. The standard that defines competency to face criminal proceedings is quite liberal. In Dusky v. United States (1962), the Supreme Court concluded that to be competent to stand trial, a defendant must be able to cooperate with his attorney in a reasonably rational manner in preparing a defense, and have a basic understanding of courtroom proceedings. In addition, a defendant must demonstrate an ability to discuss the case with his attorney and understand his legal options and defenses. Does he understand the four possible outcomes or pleas available to him (guilty, not guilty, insanity, no contest)? Does he have a basic understanding of the plea bargain process, and able to reasonably weigh the pros and cons of a plea arrangement? Does he have a reasonable appreciation of the evidence against him?
To be competent, the defendant must also have a basic understanding the roles of the various courtroom participants, including his attorney, the defense attorney, the judge and jury. He must understand, for instance, that the jury will decide on guilt or innocence. It is especially important that the defendant grasps the adversarial nature of courtroom proceeding. For instance, does he understand the assistant district attorney’s job at a trial is to establish the defendant’s guilt?
Importantly, does the defendant’s psychosis interfere with his ability to rationally understand the legal proceedings? This would be the case, for instance, if a defendant was so psychotic that he believed he was Jesus Christ and cannot be jailed in a Christian nation.
Notice that I’ve used the adjectives “reasonable” and “basic” frequently during my explanation of competency. That’s because one’s understanding doesn’t have to be perfect (how many non-lawyers understand what “no contest” means?) Frequently I correct a defendant’s knowledge deficit. For instance, I may inform him of the jury’s role, and ask him to explain its function in his own words. I then test for his understanding throughout the interview. A knowledge deficit is sometimes fixed with a simple explanation. That’s not the case when someone is severely irrational or delusional in his thinking. I’m always on the lookout for a thinking disturbance that may compromise reality and distort a defendant’s understanding of what is happening as he proceeds with his case through the judicial system.
Many mentally ill defendants do not meet the standard of competency. However, some defendants do. In this particular case, Eugene did mumble to himself and was hearing voices. When I interviewed Eugene, the voices were “not as loud” as they had been when he was first arrested. He understood the charges against him. He trusted his attorney and said he’d consider a plea bargain if offered by the assistant district attorney. Although he was distracted by the hallucinations, he understood the roles of all the courtroom participants, knowing for instance, that the assistant district attorney’s job was to “keep me in jail…send me to prison.”
I explained the above issues to Mr. Barr, much to his dissatisfaction.
In a future blog, I’ll explain the difference between a competency to stand trial evaluation and the much more complicated process involved in deciding whether a defendant was insane at the time of his offense.