Being fit to stand trial or competent to stand trial has been in the American vernacular since the early 90’s when the American Bar Association underlined this as one of the most important rights of a defendant in modern years. Though the law was in place prior to this, the use of it was not necessarily used as widely until later years. Originally used in only death penalty cases, it provided that a defendant must understand why they were being executed for their crime. Later, it was expanded to those who waived right to counsel, and those who were going to plead guilty in a court of law.
Certainly, it seems to be a logical question for anyone facing serious charges. At a minimum, a defendant should understand the charges and what they are facing down the road. What may not be as clear is how the competency is established. Since competency involves the mental capabilities, certainly a clinician must be involved, but what exactly establishes incompetence, for example? This can be a blurry line at which psychologists, lawyers, and judges try to find the truth.
Simply put, and what any Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer would tell a client is that a defendant must understand the nature of the criminal proceedings and have the ability to assist their counsel in the case. Though this is a broad measurement, clinicians will perform a variety of self-reporting and paper and pencil tests to get a clear picture of the defendant’s ability to understand these two important elements.
There are many tests used to gauge psychological and mental aptitude, and tests used specifically for defendants facing criminal charges. An example is The Competency to Stand Trial Assessment Instrument which was designed by psychiatrists just for this purpose, but there are a host of tests psychiatrists can use to measure the functional abilities of the defendant. What needs to be measured with the variety of instruments is the presence of mental disorders, intellectual deficits, and if any are present, how these impact psychological abilities.
As anyone can imagine, the stakes are high. If the defendant is being tried for an especially heinous crime, there are, for example, a criminal defense lawyer, a prosecuting attorney, the victim’s family, and the defendant themselves who all have a part in the stakes. However the tests may turn out, it is the opinion of the clinician and the discretion of the judge which weigh in on the decision to go forward with a trial or not. Because psychiatry and its instruments of measure can be subjective by nature, there have always been arguments on both sides of the conclusions put forward by a defendant. There are experts in the field of forensic psychiatry whose life work and experience are in this area, and these are the professionals typically used in cases needing competency tests. If it is found that a defendant’s mental capacity is so compromised they have no real understanding of the proceedings or their part in them, the trial will be postponed, and services may be provided for them to attempt to improve their competency in the future.
When Testing Is Needed
The issue of a defendant’s competency can be raised at any time, even after a trial has started. For example, in one of the most famous American trials ever, Casey Anthony was tested for competency very late in the trial due to her very strong reaction to the idea of pleading down to a lesser charge. It was her defense team who raised the issue, and the judge had to stop the trial for testing to be done.
Anyone involved in a case can bring the issue to the judge if they suspect the defendant is not able to understand the process in which they’re involved. Those who work as a criminal defense lawyer can, in fact, have competency tested before a trial ever begins if there are signs their client is not able to assist in their own defense because, for example, they do not understand the charges or have any recollection of the events, to name just a few. One particular item a defendant is tested for, interestingly, is malingering, or the intentional act of answering questions in an attempt to receive results indicating incompetence. In other words, the tests are designed to indicate if a person is lying.