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The Doctrine of Competency

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:53pm

This is a follow-up post to an introduction to the concept of competency to stand trial.  Overall, this is the second post in a series that will explore the various issues related to this complex psycho-legal area.

As with much of the American legal system, the doctrine of competency to stand trial was adopted from English common law. As early as the 17 th century, there has been concern in the courts regarding the ability of certain defendants to effectively participate in their trials. This concern has been the result of two underlying values:

1) Fairness - the idea behind an adversarial trial system is to provide someone accused of a crime the opportunity to mount any reasonable defense to the charges brought against him or her. This is a cornerstone of the modern judicial system, and it has been recognized for a long period of time that an individual has significant mental health problems, their ability to mount a reasonable defense is negatively impacted. To allow a trial to proceed when a defendant is incapacitated in this manner would threaten the fairness of the process, which is precisely what the legal system is seeking.

2) Accuracy - basically, the courts want to get it right. And if a defendant is significantly impaired by a “mental disease or defect,” that individual may not be able to provide relevant information at trial, understand the relevance of certain court proceedings, etc. Thus, there would likely be more mistakes made in terms of guilt or innocence.

What is also important for the lay person to understand is that, unlike a sanity defense, there is usually no long-term impact on an individual’s trial should they be found incompetent. If a defendant is found incompetent, the trial is delayed until the defendant can be restored to competency. Only in the most serious of cases, where an individual is considered to be beyond restoration, is there any permanent impact on the proceedings. In the case of an individual considered beyond restoration (for an obvious example, consider an individual who has suffered a stroke so massive that they will never awaken from their coma), the charges are generally dismissed. However, this rarely happens, and it certainly does not happen very frequently without at least a reasonable effort to restore a defendant first. The word “reasonable” is a legal term with some flexibility, but it generally is regarded to be at least one year in length. If an individual cannot be seen by experts to be restorable within one year, the Court can consider dismissing the case (although if the individual does somehow regain some functionality, they will certainly be evaluated for dangerousness). The process of restoration will be the subject of another post.

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