According to this article, the 9-year-old boy from St. John’s, Arizona who has been charged with two counts of murder (including the murder of his father) was determined to be incompetent to stand trial by an evaluator hired by the boy’s defense attorney. The article is very brief, and does not offer much in the way of specifics, at least partly because the evaluation report is not open to the public. However, the article does note the evaluator also determined the boy could not be restored a competency within a reasonable time frame. While the time frame is not specified, often it is one year. The prosecution also hired an expert to evaluate the boy, and it will be interesting to see how similar the conclusions are. In finding that the defendant is incompetent, the following was noted in the article:
Age and intelligence are among the factors Brewer says would keep the boy from understanding the two counts of premeditated murder he's facing.
While my work in this area has been with adults, the issues related to competency for children and adolescents are actually quite similar to the issues as they pertain to adults, whether the juvenile is in criminal court or juvenile court. As I’ve noted in previous posts, the primary issues relating to competency are: 1) whether the defendant is currently suffering from a significant mental health issue or deficit; 2) whether that mental health issue is impairing the defendant’s understanding of the proceedings against him, and; 3) whether that mental health issue is impairing the defendant’s ability to participate in his or her defense. It’s probably important to reiterate that competency to stand trial is considered to be a functional ability; that is, can you demonstrate an understanding of certain issues, and act in a certain way. In other words, the presence or absence of certain diagnoses, symptoms, etc. do not automatically categorize in individual as either competent or incompetent (although a few extreme diagnoses such as profound mental retardation, would generally indicate an inability to be competent in virtually any scenario).
A really good book that addresses the various issues related to the forensic evaluation of juveniles is entitled, coincidently, Forensic Evaluation of Juveniles. It is authored by Thomas Grisso, a leading expert in the field the forensic evaluation, and a psychologist who also authored Competency to Stand Trial Evaluations, which I have discussed previously. According to Grisso, among the issues suggesting an evaluation of a juvenile for competency should be considered are the following:
Age 12 years or younger
a prior diagnosis/treatment for a mental illness or mental retardation
a record indicating borderline level of intellectual functioning, or a record of a learning disability
observations of others at pre-trial events suggesting deficits in memory, attention, or interpretation of reality
I highly recommend individuals who have an interest in juvenile competency evaluations, or just in this case, read Grisso’s chapter on the subject. Again, I have not conducted evaluations of juveniles, but my expectation would be that a 9-year-old of average intelligence or above would be about the lower limit, chronologically, of a defendant who could be competent to stand trial. However, that’s just off the top of my head. Competency, though, does require both a rational as well as factual understanding of the issues, and my personal experience with 7 an 8-year-old son of average intelligence suggest to me they are probably still too cognitively rigid to obtain more factual understanding of the issues related to competency. Adults with intellectual and achievement skills in the fifth to sixth grade level can certainly be found to be competent to stand trial, but an adult in that position may have other cognitive skills and experiences that aid them in their understanding, and make up for their lack of formal schooling, etc. I would actually love to hear from somebody who does these sorts of evaluations with juveniles, and get their impressions. In the meantime, I will try to keep an eye out for the results from the second evaluation on this boy, and I’ll post if I find anything.