In past posts, I’ve written about the recent effort on the part of defense lawyers in various cases around the country to have their clients be found not guilty by reason of insanity. I’ve discussed the standard that is used in almost all states in the country and what the procedure and outcomes can be.
But then you hear people say, “The client is incompetent to stand trial.” What does that mean? Is it different from insanity?
It is something far different from insanity although both stem from the mental illness of the defendant. If there’s a suggestion that a defendant is incompetent, that questions their ability to both:
1. Understand the proceedings against them and
2. Be able to communicate with their lawyer.
This is a decision that can be raised by the defense lawyer, prosecutor, or judge. Prior to any proceedings, the defendant would be interviewed by a psychologist or psychiatrist with an effort to answer the above two questions. If the doctor decides that the defendant is unable to do both of these, in Minnesota, that means no trial can begin. If it’s a felony charge, the proceedings are delayed while the defendant receives treatment to, hopefully, get him into a competent position. If it’s a misdemeanor, the case would be dismissed.
Sometimes, the treatment may take several years to accomplish. The defendant would be interviewed and tested periodically to determine his competency. The difference between this procedure and insanity is that an incompetent person cannot even be tried.
Of course, it often happens that the defense will claim incompetency and the prosecution will disagree. In that case, experts for both sides will conduct tests and interviews with the defendant. The judge would hold a hearing in which the experts would each give their opinion with supporting documentation. The judge would have to decide whether the defendant is competent or not. If the decision is competent, the trial will go forward.
In my experience, a finding of incompetency is actually much more common than a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity. Do you think this is just a “cheap” way of avoiding criminal responsibility??