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Competence to Stand Trial

The ability of a person charged with a crime to understand the nature and purpose of the criminal proceedings.

Defendants in a criminal trial must have the ability (i.e., the competence) to understand the charges, to consult with an attorney, and to have a rational grasp of the courtroom proceedings. This requirement is a longstanding and fundamental principle of criminal law. Its purpose is to ensure that defendants can participate meaningfully in their own defense. The requirement refers to the defendant's competence at the time of the trial, rather than their psychological state at the time of the alleged offense. Rationality is a key issue in competency determinations. People judged to be incompetent usually lack the ability to understand, communicate, or make rational decisions. The legal requirement, however, does not indicate how judgments about competency should be make. Furthermore, some cases are more complex than others. Consequently it is possible for a defendant to be competent for certain kinds of legal proceedings, but not for others.

There are a number of questions that evaluators might seek to answer when making a competency determination. Does the defendant understand the charges? Does he appreciate the possible penalties? Does he appreciate the adversarial nature of the courtroom? Can he discuss legal strategy with his lawyer? Can he behave appropriately in the courtroom? Can he provide meaningful testimony in his own defense? The issue of competence can arise at any point during criminal proceedings, and may be initiated by the defense, by the prosecutor, or by the judge. Prior to 1972, defendants found to be incompetent could be confined to mental hospitals for very lengthy periods of time—sometimes for a longer period than they would have served if they had been found guilty. A U. S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 restricted the length of time a defendant could be hospitalized because of incompetence to stand trial.

Once the question of competence arises, a competency evaluation will be conducted. The evaluation typically takes place in a special hospital or clinic. A number of professionals may be qualified to conduct such examinations, including physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. There are several different psychological tests or procedures that designed to assist in the assessment of competence to stand trial. One of these is the Competency Screening Test (CST). It is a 22-item sentence completion test that requires the test-taker to complete sentence stems, such as: "When I go to court, the lawyer will ______________________." Answers are scored as indicating competence, questionable competence, or incompetence. Total scores are calculated with a cutoff score that indicates possible incompetence. Another assessment test is the Competency Assessment Instrument (CAI). It consists of a detailed face-to-face interview about various aspects of competent functioning, including an appreciation of the charges and an understanding of the various roles of the judge, witnesses, jury, prosecutor, etc.

Research has shown that when competency evaluations occur, most (70%) of the defendants who are assessed are judged competent. As a group, those judged incompetent tend to have been charged with more serious crimes, compared to defendants in general. They also are likely to have a history of psychosis, to have a serious current mental disorder, and to be poorly educated. Once a defendant is judged to be competent, the legal proceedings are resumed and a trial takes place. If the defendant is found incompetent, the charges may be dropped for crimes that are not serious. Otherwise the defendant is returned to an institution until competency can be restored. Until then, all legal proceedings are postponed. If competency cannot be restored within a reasonable period of time (e.g., within a year or so), defendants may be committed to a hospital through involuntary civil (i.e., noncriminal) proceedings.

Theodore Kaczynski was accused in April, 1996 of being the serial bomber who built homemade bombs that killed three people and injured many others between 1978 and 1995. At the beginning of his trial he disrupted the proceedings because of a dispute with his lawyers about his defense. His request to represent himself and an attempted suicide provoked concerns about his competence. The court requested a competency assessment. Kaczynski (also known as the Unabomber) was judged by the psychiatrist who conducted the assessment to be legally competent to stand trial. In her report to the court, the psychiatrist said that Kaczynski was not suffering from any mental defect that could prevent him from understanding the nature of the charges, or from assisting his lawyers in mounting a defense. On the other hand, she noted that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Ultimately, a trial was averted when he agreed to plead guilty to numerous charges in exchange for a promise that prosecutors would not seek the death penalty during his sentencing. He was sentenced to four life terms plus 30 years with no possibility of parole. The Unabomber case provides a good illustration of a situation in which a psychological disorder did not necessarily harm the defendant's ability to participate meaningfully in the trial proceedings.

Timothy Moore

Further Reading

Wrightsman, L., Nietzel, M., & Fortune, W. Psychology and the Legal System. New York: Brooks Cole, 1998.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage