Competency evaluation (law)

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In the United States criminal justice system, a competency evaluation is an assessment of the ability of a defendant to understand and rationally participate in a court process.

Competency was originally established by the Supreme Court of the United States as the evaluation of a defendant's competence to proceed to trial.[1] In a subsequent ruling, the Court held that any prisoner facing the death penalty must be evaluated as competent to be executed, meaning that he must be capable of understanding why he has received the death penalty and the effect that the penalty will have.[2] In further rulings, competence was also enlarged to include evaluation of the defendant's competence to plead guilty and competence to waive the right to counsel.[3]

The American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Mental Health Standards stated in 1994 that the issue of a defendant's current mental incompetence is the single most important issue in the criminal mental health field, noting that an estimated 24,000 to 60,000 forensic evaluations of a criminal defendant's competency to stand trial were performed every year in the United States.[4] A 1973 estimate put the number of competence evaluations at 25,000 to 36,000 each year. There are indications that the number of evaluations of criminal defendants is rising. One comparison of estimates between 1983 and 2004 suggest the annual number rose from 50,000 to 60,000 criminal competency evaluations respectively.[5]

Competence to proceed[edit]

This standard is based on the Supreme Court decision Dusky v. United States[6] in which the Court affirmed a defendant's right to have a competency evaluation before proceeding to trial. Competence to proceed was defined by the court as the defendant's ability to consult rationally with an attorney to aid in his own defense and to have a rational and factual understanding of the charges.[6]

In this case Dusky presented a petition of writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court requesting that his conviction be reversed on the grounds that he was not competent to stand trial at the time of the proceeding. The court decided to grant the writ, based on a lack of recent evidence that the petitioner was competent at the time of the trial. The case was remanded to the district court for a new hearing to evaluate Dusky's competence to stand trial, and for a new trial if he was found competent.[6]

The case set the current standard for adjudicative competency in the United States. Although the statutes addressing competency vary from state to state in the United States, the two elements outlined in the Dusky v. United States decision are held in common. The defendant must understand the charges and have the ability to aid his attorney in his own defense.[7]

Competency to stand trial is generally determined via a pretrial evaluation of the defendant's overall mental status and mental state at the time of the examination. This evaluation aims to provide sufficient information to allow a judge to rule on the competency of the defendant should a motion to that effect be made by either the prosecutor or defense attorney. A judge may also directly rule a defendant incompetent to stand trial without receiving a motion to that effect from counsel.[7]

Who is deemed qualified to conduct a competency evaluation varies from state to state. Originally competency evaluations included a range of tests and assessments. Recently the tendency is to simplify the process by relying upon an interview and, optionally, a psychological evaluation. There are a number of standardized screening devices that also may be employed.[8]

A defendant who has been deemed incompetent to stand trial may be required to undergo mental health treatment, including court-ordered hospitalization and the administration of treatment against the defendant's wishes, in an effort to render the defendant competent to stand trial.[9][10]

Competence to be executed[edit]

An additional evaluation is of the competence to be executed, that is the defendant must be capable of understanding why he is being executed and the effect execution will have.[11]

The right to be competent to be executed resulted from the outcome of a United States Supreme Court case, Ford v. Wainwright, in which a Florida inmate on death row took his case to the United States Supreme Court, declaring he was not competent to be executed. He had been evaluated as incompetent but the Governor of Florida made an executive branch decision and signed the death warrant anyway. The court ruled that a forensic professional must make that evaluation and, if the inmate is found incompetent, provide treatment to aid in the inmate gaining competency in order that the execution can take place.[2][12]

Providing treatment to an individual to enable that person to become competent to be executed places mental health professionals in an ethical dilemma.[13] The National Medical Association takes the position that ethically it is a physician's duty to provide treatment, regardless of the patient's legal situation. Others feel that it is unethical to treat a person in order to execute them. Most restorations of competency are accomplished through psychiatric medication.[14]

Competence to plead guilty[edit]

It has been estimated that approximately 90 percent of all criminal cases in the United States are settled through guilty pleas, rather than a trial.[15]

In Godinez v. Moran, 1993, the Supreme Court held that the competency standard for pleading guilty or waiving the right to counsel is the same as the competency standard for proceeding to trial as established in Dusky v. United States. A higher standard of competency is not required.[3]

Feigning incompetence[edit]

In United States v. Binion malingering or feigning illness during a competency evaluation was held to be obstruction of justice and led to an increased sentence.[16]

Waiver of challenge to competency to stand trial[edit]

Where a defendant does not raise the issue of mental competence before trial, the issue of competence may be deemed waived in the event of a conviction and appeal. For example, in United States v. Morin[17] the United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit upheld the defendant's conviction. The court rejected Mr. Morin’s argument, among others, that the district court violated his due process rights by refusing to allow him to waive competency at trial. The court held that since his competency to stand trial was never challenged, the issue of whether he was entitled to waive competency to stand trial was properly not considered.[18]

Common principles[edit]

Although Dusky v. United States[6] affirmed the right to a competency evaluation, the specifics of the evaluation remain ambiguous. Each evaluator must decide what is meant by "sufficient present ability" and "has a rational as well as a factual understanding" as set forth in the Dusky decision. One common principle is clear in forensic evaluations, however. Forensic evaluators cannot reach a finding independent of the facts of the case at hand.[19]

Notable cases[edit]

In 1989, Kenneth Curtis of Stratford, Connecticut was initially found mentally incompetent to stand trial following the murder of his estranged girlfriend. But years later, as he had attended college and received good grades, this ruling was reversed, and he was ordered to stand trial.

Some other notable cases include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Competency to stand trial" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-08-20. Retrieved 2007-10-05.
  2. ^ a b "Ford v. Wainwright 477 U.S. 399". Cornell Law School. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
  3. ^ a b "Godinez, Warden v. Moran". Cornell Law School. Retrieved 2007-10-05.
  4. ^ "The MacArthur Adjudicative Competence Study". MacArthur Research Network for Mental Health and the Law. 2001. Retrieved 2008-02-16.
  5. ^ Douglas Mossman, MD; Stephen G.; Noffsinger, MD; Peter Ash, MD; et al. (2007). "AAPL Practice Guideline for the Forensic Psychiatric Evaluation of Competence to Stand Trial". Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 35 (4 Suppl): S3–72. PMID 18083992. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
  6. ^ a b c d "Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960)". Google Scholar. Retrieved 11 August 2017.
  7. ^ a b Grisso, Thomas (1988). Competency to Stand Trial Evaluations: A Manual for Practice (1988 ed.). Sarasota FL: Professional Resource Exchange. pp. 1–23. ISBN 0-943158-51-6.
  8. ^ O'Conner, Instructor, Tom. "Assessment of competency and sanity". North Carolina Wesleyan College. Archived from the original on 2007-12-22. Retrieved 2007-10-05.
  9. ^ "Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166, 123 S.Ct. 2174, 156 L.Ed.2d 197 (2003)". Google Scholar. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  10. ^ Larson, Aaron. "What is Competence to Stand Trial". ExpertLaw. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  11. ^ Executing the Mentally Ill: The Criminal Justice System and the Case of Alvin Ford. Sage. 1993. ISBN 978-0-8039-5150-1. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
  12. ^ "Executing the Mentally Ill". Sage. April 22, 1986. Retrieved 2007-10-03.
  13. ^ Heilbrun, K; Radelet, ML; Dvoskin, J (1 May 1992). "The debate on treating individuals incompetent for execution". The American Journal of Psychiatry. 149 (5): 596–605. doi:10.1176/ajp.149.5.596. PMID 1349457. Retrieved 2007-10-09.
  14. ^ Gary, Melton (1997). Psychological Evaluations for the Courts: A Handbook for Mental Health Professionals and Lawyers (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 184. ISBN 1-57230-236-4.
  15. ^ "The MacArthur Adjudicative Competence Study". The MacArthur Research Network on Mental Health and the Law. Retrieved 2007-11-25.
  16. ^ Darani, Shaheen (3 January 2006). "Behavior of the Defendant in a Competency-to-Stand-Trial Evaluation Becomes an Issue in Sentencing". Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 34 (1): 126. Retrieved 2007-10-10.
  17. ^ United States v. Morin 338 F.3d 838 (8th Cir. 2003)
  18. ^ Mueller, Theodore (2005). "Right to Waive Competency to Stand Trial". Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 33 (1): 112. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
  19. ^ "Mental Competency Evaluations: Guidelines for Judges and Attorneys" (PDF). American Judges Association. 2002. Retrieved 2007-10-10.

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