Competency to Stand Trial, Proceed Pro Se, Plea, Receive Sentencing

Competency issues can arise at several different junctures along the life cycle of a case. While one’s competency to stand trial is perhaps the most familiar question raised, there are other types of competency disputes that may warrant expert competency assessment by a forensic psychiatrist. These functions include competency to represent one’s self, competency to plea, competency to be sentenced, and competency to be executed.

At any time during a criminal proceeding that the defendant is thought to be unable to show a rational and factual understanding of his charges or the legal process, or unable to communicate with counsel, he or she may be tested for competence to stand trial.

Competency Assessment Factors

Status of a competency assessment may change suddenly, but ascertaining whether such an incapacitation has taken place requires a diligent examination of several pertinent areas. In an instant, even the most able executive can become incapacitated—but how to tell? How does the defendant communicate? How much does he really understand? How well can he assist his attorney? What does he remember? What will his behavior be like in court? The answers to competency assessment questions such as these require a thoughtful, case-specific forensic expert consultation, with openness to input from a variety of sources.

A thorough competency assessment must focus first on gathering history specific to the particular case. Standardized testing is useful, but not to the exclusion of first tailoring an expert assessment to the relevant issues of a given case. A precise and conscientious report also will include soliciting information from collateral historians whenever possible.

Review of hospital and corrections records, including private communications, yields considerable information about competency to stand trial, especially when staff may be consulted directly. Input about motivation, mental health, and ability to understand material relevant to his proceeding may successfully be gathered from confidantes and family. In some instances, particularly when the court raises a competency concern because of a defendant’s behavior, impartial officers of the court should be engaged. The competency assessment may warrant the forensic expert actually observing him in court, for the examination presentation may not be reflective of what the court has to confront.

When should a Competency Evaluation be requested?

Because there are a variety of reasons why a person could have dubious competency to stand trial, the retaining attorney or judge should specify the basis for the forensic psychiatric expert referral. The competency evaluation of a defendant’s ability to understand his legal situation warrants a threshold that varies according to the potential outcome of the case. The higher the stakes of the case -- a murder case, for example -- the higher the threshold the evaluating mental health professional is likely to employ when recommending whether the defendant has the requisite understanding to proceed with trial.

Psychological testing is also utilized when appropriate, and may be particularly important when intellectual potentials are at real issue. The forensic psychiatrist may use an IQ test to measure intellectual deficiencies, an expert neurological assessment to assess possible organic conditions, or diagnostic screening interviews to collect information about an array of potential symptoms. Diagnosis does not establish competency to stand trial but may help educate the court about why a specific defendant is not competent.

How knowingly or voluntarily does the defendant waive the right to representation? Would only a fool represent himself? Forensic psychiatrists of The Forensic Panel also have the expertise and experience to evaluate competency to self-represent, which can be a delicate area in which illness often conflicts with rights of the individual.

Plea negotiations are commonly affected by the intellectual sophistication of the defendant or his motivation to undertake the rigors of trial. A diligent forensic expert examination reveals whether the defendant understands his or her options, which is a necessary component of the legal criteria for competency to plea. Furthermore, depression or psychotic thinking that affects motivation cannot be presumed nor ignored.

Peer Reviewed Competence Evaluations

Rulings on competency to stand trial may shape the entire course of the case, especially when the charges are more serious. For this reason, consulting a qualified forensic psychiatrist enables an attorney to ascertain, at a very early stage, the potentials of mental heath issues as they relate to a particular case, such as specific symptoms like hallucinations and delusions, as well as the significance of malingering, if present. Further, The Forensic Panel’s peer review process ensures the quality of the examinations of competency to stand trial by involving specifically qualified experts in pertinent specialties to review and lend oversight to the assessment of the forensic psychiatrist.