Competency And Mental Disease Or Defect

Competency and Mental Disease or Defect

The New York State Criminal Procedure Law requires that two psychiatrists examine the accused to determine if he is fit to stand trial.  A court may authorize one hired by the defendant to be present at the examination.  The defendant’s attorney always has the right to be present as well.

If the accused is in custody, the examination takes place where he is being held.  The accused might be in a hospital confinement, which can be for 30 days, and subject to another 30 day renewal order.  If he is not in custody, the examination is conducted on an out-patient basis and he is told when and where to appear for the examination.  It cannot be held at the district attorney’s office.

When a report is done, the court, defense attorney and prosecutor get a copy which includes a determination.

Competency is a very limited finding.  It simply means that at the time of the litigation, the accused understands enough to know what is legally going on and what role the different court personnel, including his attorney, play.  This is known as capacity to stand trial.  It is his mental state in the “present tense” only. It is different from his mental state during the alleged crime, his mental state in the “past tense.”  There can be different findings for competency and mental state at the time of the criminal act.

Since mental state affects intent, which is the cornerstone of criminal culpability, if the accused was suffering from some mental aberration at the time of the alleged acts constituting the crime, he is entitled to have that determined by a jury which can find him to be not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect, and therefore not guilty. However, though this avoids criminal culpability, the defendant does not simply go home.  He is delivered to the custody of a mental health facility for evaluation and may spend many  years in that facility instead of a prison.  He may be housed for up to two-thirds of the maximum sentence which could have been imposed had he been found criminally liable on the charge.  This is because he may be found to be a danger to himself or others, which is often the case.

This type of defense entails admitting that the accused did the act(s), and the argument is that he did not know or appreciate what he was doing, therefore could not form normal intent, and should not be sent to a prison.  But he can, and probably should, be placed in a secure mental facility, as the law contemplates.

Mounting a mental disease defense is complicated and involved, and requires many steps and considerations which cannot be adequately discussed here.  But all too often, in my experience, I have found valid mental disease/defect defenses are questionably ignored or rejected by many defense attorneys.  Many accused people suffer from transitory mental states, permanent mental states, drug or alcohol induced states, and mental retardation, just to mention the most common instances in which the defense may be applicable and demonstrable.  In any case in which there are facts or circumstances which suggest a defendant may have mental issues, then the nature and effects of them should be investigated and a reasoned determination made concerning the pursuit of such defense, which should include consultation with a mental health professional.