Competency to Stand Trial Essay

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 Competence to stand trial is essential to due process, to fair trial, and at least in capital cases, to preventing cruel and unusual punishments under the Eighth Amendment. Competence, different from insanity, is a moving target that is at issue throughout the trial. Trying and sentencing incompetent defendants is an affront to human dignity, since sentencing loses most of its deterrence, retribution, and other justifications when the defendant does not know what is happening in the trial and why. Although questions remain regarding medicating incompetent defendants to competency, training them to competency, or medicating them to become execution-competent, the criminal justice system is constrained to try only those defendants who have a present ability to understand the proceedings and assist in mounting their own defenses.

Criminal defendants have a right to understand the charges against them, understand the criminal proceedings and their import, be capable of communicating effectively with their defense counsel (or be competent enough to represent themselves), and be able to assist in the preparation and presentation of their own defense. Anything less would yield a criminal justice system that does not ensure due process or simple human dignity for the accused.

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution guarantee due process for all criminal defendants, and due process requires both substantive due process (substantive fairness or equity) and procedural due process (procedures sufficient to guarantee notice and a right to be heard). If a criminal defendant does not understand the charges that have been brought, or does not understand the respective roles of the prosecutor or the judge or the jury, or is not able to understand the evidence as it comes before the jury, or cannot understand what the defense attorney is advising or explaining, then he or she is not competent to stand trial. If the criminal justice system is conceived as providing a path toward fair and proportionate consequences for criminals, and if criminal sentences are justified because they provide deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, and restitution, then the prosecution of a defendant who does not understand what is happening in court may fail to achieve any real deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation, or restitution at all.

Insanity Is Different From Incompetence to Stand Trial

There are several points in a criminal matter where the defendant’s competency is plainly at issue, but as a preliminary matter two different standards must be borne in mind. First, at the time of the crime itself, in most U.S. jurisdictions the criminal defendant must have been sane, that is, must have appreciated the nature of his or her criminal acts, must have been capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong, and must have known the criminal act was wrong. Stated differently, the defendant is insane when suffering from a severe mental disease or defect, and due to the disease or defect is unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his or her acts. If the defendant is found to be insane, then in most U.S. jurisdictions the defendant would be found not guilty by reason of insanity, or guilty but insane, and would not be held criminally culpable for the crime committed.

Criminal culpability requires both an actus reus and the required mens rea. Actus reus is the criminal act itself, which causes some social harm, some injury, to someone or something in particular or to society in general. Mens rea simply means a guilty or criminal state of mind. Each crime specifies its own required level of mens rea—its own particular state of mind. For example, to be found guilty of intentional murder, the offender must have intended the victim’s death, so the required mens rea for intentional murder is intent.

When the offender suffers from a mental disability so profound that he or she is incapable of intending to commit the crime, the offender should be found not guilty. Intent was an element of the crime, and since, to convict, the fact finder must find all elements beyond a reasonable doubt, failure to find sufficient capacity to intend the crime means the offender is not guilty. Mens rea is logically related to competency to stand trial, but mens rea is relevant only at the time of the crime, not at the time of the trial.

At the time of the trial, competency to stand trial, and not mens rea, is the relevant standard. To be found competent to stand trial, a defendant must have both a sufficient present ability to consult with his or her lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him or her. Thus, a person who was sane at the time of the offense may be or may become incompetent to stand trial.

Inasmuch as the rule requires that the defendant have a present ability to consult with defense counsel, application of the rule presents a moving target. After all, if the defendant’s competence flags for any part of the trial, the sanctity of the trial and the trial’s due process assurances are compromised. Thus, the rules typically put the burden on the defense counsel, the trial judge, and the prosecutor to pay attention to the mental competence of the defendant in real time lest the defendant’s condition deteriorate at any point.

Defendants who believed the judge was God or the jurors were angels, who put spells or curses on persons in the courtroom, who believed they were on a mission from God, who believed they could use mind control to compel the governor to grant a pardon, who were severely retarded or unable to speak coherently, who suffered from severe organic brain disorders or persistent hallucinations have all been found incompetent to stand trial. On the other hand, in different circumstances, the offender may be quite insane, yet still competent to stand trial, so long as the competency standards are met. But a far lower hurdle may be enough. So long as the presiding judge believes the defendant does not have a present ability to understand the proceedings and participate meaningfully in mounting a defense, that judge should find the defendant incompetent to stand trial.

In essence, criminal justice requires a competent defendant, or there can be no due process and no fair trial. Both of those rights are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Each defendant has the right to be present in court and confront accusers, but an incompetent defendant is not truly “present” at all.

The competency to stand trial issue arises at various points during and after the trial, such as whether the defendant is competent during the trial at every phase and is competent: (1) to understand the charges filed, (2) to appear without counsel and represent himself or herself, (3) to waive constitutional and procedural rights, (4) to decide whether or not to testify in the trial, (5) to waive trial and plead guilty, (6) to be sentenced and participate in the sentencing hearing, and (7) to be executed. But no matter where the issue arises, the issues and standards are similar.

The Special Case of Medicating to Competency

In some situations, although the defendant is presently unable to comprehend the proceedings or assist in the defense, it is possible to medicate the defendant to a point where he or she is rendered at least apparently competent. For example, a schizophrenic defendant chooses, before or during trial, to discontinue the prescribed antipsychotic medications and begins seriously decompensating. In that circumstance, that defendant could become incompetent to stand trial in a matter of days or weeks. For that purpose, a defendant may intentionally choose such a course of action to avoid facing consequences for the crime. In those situations, some courts have ordered that the antipsychotic medications be forcibly administered to return the defendant to competency. Of course, there are ethical issues if a physician administers those medicines against the defendant’s (that is, the patient’s) will. Additionally, there is the lingering question as to whether the resulting medicated-to-competence defendant is the same “person” who committed the crime. Coupled with that is the question whether forced administration of those medications submerges the defendant’s “true self” and renders the defendant suppressed, repressed, and, in fact, less competent to assist in his or her defense. Some of these issues are still in search of a final answer in court.

The Special Case of Training to Competency

If the source of the incompetency to stand trial is not mental illness, but rather is the defendant’s low mental functioning or mental retardation, the defendant simply may not, at a base level, understand, for example, the respective roles of the judge, jury, or prosecutor, or what the charges mean, or even what a trial is. The defendant’s low mental functioning may preclude the defendant, therefore, from a present ability to understand the proceedings. Faced with that issue, some courts have compelled the defendant to cooperate with a training regimen, literally tutoring the mentally impaired defendant on all facets of the trial and on the roles of all the people in the courtroom. It has been shown that the training can yield a mentally retarded defendant who can accurately recite the roles of the courtroom participants, but some argue that a defendant who can parrot the right answers on which he or she has been drilled may not necessarily have a present ability to understand the proceedings and assist in the defense.

The Special Case of Competency to Be Executed

An especially troublesome area arises in death penalty cases. A defendant, while competent or while medicated to competence, may be convicted of capital murder, sentenced to death, and placed on death row to await execution during which time his or her mental state deteriorates. In one case, a death row inmate ordered his last meal and it came with dessert. The inmate was in the habit of always saving the dessert to eat later instead of eating it with his meal. On the day of his execution, he ate the last meal he had ordered and put the dessert aside to eat later. The officials walked him to the death chamber and ended his life. His dessert was still back in his cell, where the man had been expecting to return. The U.S. Supreme Court has wrestled with this dilemma, and a majority of that court has reasoned that there is no justice in executing a condemned person who does not understand that he or she is about to be executed or even understand why.

A defendant’s competence to be executed poses its own ethical questions. Courts have struggled to decide whether a court may order that medications be forcibly administered to render the death row inmate execution-competent, that is, competent to understand that execution is imminent and understand the true reason why the execution was ordered. Some courts have decided that so long as administering those medications is consistent with the death row inmate’s best overall medical interests, such as, by making the inmate feel better or healthier, then even though the execution is clearly not in the inmate’s best medical interests, the forcible medication is constitutional, and does not violate the cruel and unusual punishments clause of the Eighth Amendment. That area of the law continues to evolve.


  1. Arrigo, Bruce A. and Mark C. Bardwell, “Law, Psychology, and Competency to Stand Trial: Problems With and Implications for High-Profile Cases.” Criminal Justice Policy Review, v.11 (2000).
  2. Coe, Jeffrey J. “Note, Seeking a Sane Solution: Reevaluating Interests in Forcibly Medicating Criminal Defendants to Trial Competency.” Arizona Law Review, v.54 (2012).
  3. Dillard, J. Amy. “Madness Alone Punishes the Madman: The Search for Moral Dignity in the Court’s Competency Doctrine as Applied in Capital Cases.” Tennessee Law Review, v.79 (2012).
  4. Erickson, Patricia and Steven Erickson. Crime, Punishment, and Mental Illness. E-book. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008.

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