I’ve discussed this issue before, but since so much of my work involves assessing defendant’s competency to stand trial, I read a lot about various aspects of this issue. I find it helpful to review even the basics, as having additional work experience often provides an opportunity to consider something I have already learned in a new light.
In this case, I’ve been reading parts of a new book on Competency Evaluations, Evaluation of Competence to Stand Trial, by Patricia Zapf and Ronald Roesch. A well-written, detailed book, I’ve read a few sections to either refresh my memory on certain issues, or look for additional information. In this case, I came across a brief section of book pertaining to raising the issue of the competency of a defendant.
This is pretty well-established law, according to everything I’ve read on the subject: the issue of competency must be raised by any officer of Court (that is, the judge, prosecution, or defense) if there is a bona fide doubt as to the defendant’s competence. According to Zapf and Roesch, this standard was established by the Supreme Court in 1966, during the case of Pate vs. Robinson. I’ve also heard of cases where the initiation of the question regarding competency has originated from pre-trial services staff (such as a pre-trial officer gathering background information), and in one case I heard about, it was a Spanish interpreter who informed the judge that the defendant was speaking Spanish, but wasn’t making any sense.
The book notes (as have other books, and also what I’ve personally observed) that the threshold for establishing a bona fide doubt is low: virtually all courts will order an evaluation if the issue is raised. The legal system wants a fair, accurate trial for the defendant, and judges do not want cases turned over on appeal. According to Zapf and Roesch, the case Drope vs. Missouri (1975) noted three issues related to a defendant’s competency; if even one of these observations are made, it may be sufficient to warrant an evaluation:
2) a defendant’s demeanor at trial
3) any prior medical opinion on competence to stand trial
In addition, it should be noted that these issues may warrant an evaluation at any point during the legal process. That is, a defendant may be competent at the start of a trial; should his presentation or functioning change during the course of the trial, the necessity of an evaluation remains.
Personally, I’ve observed that there is, in general, a fairly low threshold for referring a defendant for a competency evaluation, at least within the federal system. I’ve had individuals sent for a evaluation who have no mental health or legal history, but presented as tearful during an appearance in court, and acknowledged they were depressed. I’m not offering judgment either way in this respect; it is a judge’s decision whether an individual warrants an evaluation. I also understand (and appreciate) that legal professionals generally acknowledge that the mental health knowledge involved with respect to issues related to competency, responsibility, etc. are beyond their training. Requesting for an evaluation is often simply an acknowledgment that there is an issue present; while it may not be severe, non-mental health clinicians are not always aware of this. As a simple example, some diagnoses sound pretty significant, even though they are not necessarily all that severe, or relevant to the issue of competency. Of course, we still doa full evaluation of an individual’s competency to stand trial, but when a defendant is relatively healthy mental health-wise, there is generally less to assess than with a defendant who presents with multiple issues and a lengthy treatment history.
The only other observation I’ll note at this time is that I’ve come across a few questions from time to time about the high number of people found competent to stand trial, when compared to individual’s found incompetent. The data suggests that approximately 70-80% of defendant’s evaluated for competency are, in fact, found competent. Only 20-30% are found incompetent. This is primarily due to two factors: 1) the threshold for referring an individual for an evaluation is low; and 2) The threshold for being competent is low. That is, lots of people meet the criteria to warrant an evaluation. Conversely, not much is legally required to be found competent. Most individuals are found competent because they are competent, even when they have some sort of mental health issue. It takes a fair degree of impairment to be found incompetent. I’ve gone into all of this before, so help yourself to previous postings on this subject!