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The Five Objectives of a Competency Evaluation - #1 - Functional Description of Specific Abilities

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:52pm

According to Grisso, there are five primary objectives of a competency evaluation, based on the definition and procedure related to competency to stand trial. As stated in previous posts, the focus of an evaluation for competency to stand trial is narrow and specific - you are providing an opinion as to whether the defendant is competent or not, as well as related information, which is to be discussed in these sections. An evaluator ought not deviate from this narrow, specific focus, unless directed to do so by the Court.

The first primary objective of an evaluation of competency is to provide a description of the defendant’s specific abilities, as defined by the statute. As covered previously, the concept of competency focuses on the defendant’s present ability to understand court proceedings, and to assist in his/her defense. Therefore, the ultimate focus ought to be on the defendant’s abilities in those two areas. The report does not simply say “Yes, he’s competent,” or “No, he’s incompetent.” Rather, the evaluator describes the knowledge the defendant possesses (or doesn’t possess) of the various areas related to understanding court proceedings, as well as knowledge related to aiding his/her attorney. Strengths and limitations are noted, as is what the defendant may or may not be capable of in the courtroom. A description of the defendant’s reasoning capacity is also expected, at least with respect to trial-related issues.

This does not mean that more general clinical-related information cannot be provided, it is just not sufficient. Furthermore, the relationship of the general information to the specific competency issues should be explained. As an example, if an individual’s competency is in question due to cognitive deficits as a result of a head injury, it is not enough to simply administer an IQ test, and report the results. It is not even enough to elaborate on the general strengths and limitations that are present as a result of cognitive testing. The results of the cognitive testing must be specifically applied to the functional abilities of competency. In other words, “How do the results of the IQ test impact this individual’s ability to understand court proceedings, and aid his attorney in his defense?”

Now, the first source of said abilities is the Dusky case, which has been previously discussed. However, the description of the requirements for competency to stand trial are brief and vague in Dusky, so an evaluator must consider additional sources of established criteria/guidance re: what is necessary to be competent. Three lists have been generated, one by a court, one by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, and one by research team comprised by clinicians and attorneys. None of these are legally binding, and an evaluator is not beholden to any one list, or even all of its criteria. However, they offer a sound template for an evaluator to follow, and certainly they address the areas relevant to competency. Any evaluator completing a report for the court should be ready to discuss these areas of functioning in court, if requested.

A review of the clinician-attorney list will reveal four broad areas for consideration of a defendant’s functional abilities. These are:

1) Understanding and appreciation of the trial process - basic knowledge and a rational understanding of the major participants in court, as well as their roles (i.e. “What is the role of the judge?”); an understanding of the sequence of events during a trial (e.g. “Do you have to testify in your own case? If you do testify, who will ask you questions first?”); and an understanding of the charges, penalties, and outcomes (examples would include: “What are you charged with?”; “How serious are these charges?”; “If you receive a sentence, where would you serve such a sentence?”; and, “What are the possible decisions a judge/jury could reach?”).

2) Ability to demonstrate appropriate behavioral and emotional responses while participating in the trial process - this area examines the relationship of the defendant to their attorney, or any attorney (especially the ability to trust, confide in their attorney); to behave appropriately in court (important point - do they have the ability to behave appropriately, not will they!); the ability to testify relevantly (i.e. provide reasonable, appropriate answers, to include understanding what they are being asked); and a reasonable motivation to participate in one’s own defense (a problem here may be a severe self-persecutory delusion where they believe they ought to die because “God commands it.”).

3) Ability to understand and reason about their defense - addresses whether their perspective about their case, and their defense, reasonable and realistic, as well as their ability to collaborate with their attorney on strategy.

4) Ability to track, process, and discuss information relevant to their defense - for example, do they have sufficient recall and memory to follow what is being said in court, as it unfolds, and discuss these issues with their attorney? Will they be able to know whether their case is “going well” or “going poorly,” and make important decisions (i.e. accept a plea bargain) based on what they are processing?

In previous posts, I discussed the concept of “functional abilities” related to competency - the above four areas are what I am talking about, and they are four subcategories (and more specific) than the two main areas, understanding the trial process, and ability to aid in one’s defense. This break down of those two areas with these four categories hopefully give you a better idea, going forward, of the specific types of abilities we are assessing when evaluating for competency. And, when writing our evaluation, we need to describe, as specifically as possible, how well a defendant will currently do in each of these areas. It is not enough to simply generalize from the general assessments. As I stated earlier, I may administer an IQ test, and I may be able to infer that a defendant may have difficulty understanding the role of the participants in court. However, I still have to assess that directly (which will be reviewed in another post). I can’t assume that a person with an IQ of 70 can or cannot grasp these issues, it has to be directly examined, and then described in the report.

There - probably my longest post to date! Unfortunately, no real way to break it down any smaller. Next up will be objective #2, which is providing causal explanations for deficits in these functional abilities related to competencies (i.e. “Here are the problems, now let me explain why these problems are present.”).

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