While the focus of my thread of posts regarding competency has been specifically on standing trial, it might be wise to mention that competency to stand trial is but one of a number of various competencies relevant to criminal and civil law. For example, in civil law, there is competency to care for oneself, competency to manage own’s property, and competency to refuse treatment, among others.
The same is true for competencies within criminal law. There are several such competencies, and they tend to loosely follow the trial process. Here is a list, borrowed from Thomas Grisso’s Competency to Stand Trial Evaluations: A Manual for Practice (pg. 3), of the various competency issues relevant to criminal proceedings:
1) Competency to Confess (waive rights at pretrial investigations) - understanding and appreciation of rights to silence and legal counsel, when the rights may be waved at the request of law enforcement investigators seeking self-incriminating statements.
2) Competency to Plead Guilty - Understanding and appreciation of the above, as well as the right to a jury trial, the right to confront one’s accusers, and the consequences of a conviction.
3) Stand Trial - Ability to assist an attorney in developing and presenting a defense (including proper conduct within the courtroom), and to understand the nature of the trial and its potential consequences.
4) Be Sentenced - Understanding and appreciation of the nature of the sentence to be imposed (after a trial has resulted in conviction)
5) Be Executed - Understanding and appreciation of the nature and purpose of the punishment, and the ability to assist counsel in any available appeal.
What is important to note, however, is that in a contentious decision reached by the Supreme Court in 1993 (Godinez vs. Moran), it was determined that the standard for the various competencies should be considered the same (I will likely post separately regarding this case, as it is a fascinating read of a complicated case). The idea is that the various decisions to be made by a defendant during the course of a trial do not differ substantially in terms complexity, and therefore do not require differing levels of ability. This case has been hotly debated, though part of the disagreement has to do with a lack of a full assessment at the time the issue was raised (prior evaluations were utilized in the assessment).
Difficulties the defendant has with any of the above areas can be cause to request an evaluation, prior to the continuation of the trial process. Many of the areas noted above do have sections of overlap, including such abilities as the ability to assist counsel. However, what is important is that, even if a defendant has appeared competent up to a certain point in the trial process, an emergence of signs indicating possible incompetence may necessitate an evaluation, regardless of which stage in the trial process the defendant is currently in. In other words, a motion may be filed for a competency evaluation prior to arraignment, all the way through until after conviction, depending on the presentation and the issues and decisions confronting the defendant. More than one evaluation may even be conducted (though this is not common), if the presentation of the defendant changes for some reason. For example, prior to the start of a trial, a defendant is evaluated and determined to be competent. However, during the trial, he is involved in an altercation in his cell, and suffers a significant head injury. A second evaluation may be required.
In summary, while competency ultimately comes down to a “simple” Yes/No decision, the issue of competency is complex and multifaceted. There are many stages of a trial that require the defendant to participate in various decisions, accurately follow the progress of the case against him, and be able to effectively work with his/her attorney.