Many times people confuse "competency" with the "insanity defense." What factors will the courts in Louisiana look at to determine whether or not a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial?
What is the difference between finding someone "not competent" and "not guilty by reason of insanity?"
Competency involves the defendant's mental state during the court/trial proceedings, a "not guilty by reason of insanity" has to do with the defendant's mental state during the crime he/she allegedly committed. These are two separate proceedings. While they may stem from the same cause or mental defect (i.e. schizophrenia), it is important to remember that they are two separate proceedings with different tests and consequences. The test: The test to determine whether or not a defendant is competent has two prongs; 1) does the defendant understand the consequences of the proceedings? 2) does the defendant have the ability to assist in his defense by consultation with counsel?
Part #1: Does the defendant understand the consequences of the proceedings?
The State, Defense and the Court will look at the following factors to determine whether or not the defendant understands the proceedings. They will ask: 1) does the defendant understand the nature of the charge? (i.e. does the defendant understand that he is charged with possession of heroin?) 2) does the defendant appreciate the severity of the charge? (i.e. does the defendant seem to understand the severity of the potential jail time?) 3) does the defendant understand what defenses are available (i.e. does he comprehend that he can claim self-defense) 4) does the defendant understand the difference between a guilty and a not guilty plea and would they understand they consequences? (i.e. does the defendant understand that he will go to jail for 10 years if he pleads guilty?) 5) does the defendant understand the range of possible verdicts and consequences of conviction? (i.e does the defendant understand that the jury could find him guilty as charge, or even guilty of a lesser included charge that still has he/she facing jail time).
Part #2 Does the defendant have the ability to assist his attorney in their defense?
Factors the Court, State and Defense will look at: 1) Can the defendant recall and relate the facts of his case to his defense attorney? (i.e. can he tell his defense attorney what happened during the time of the alleged crime and where he/she was at.) 2) Can the defendant help his counsel in locating any relevant witnesses to the crime 3) During trial, will the defendant be able to listen to the testimony of witnesses and inform his attorney of any problems or misstatements given by those witnesses? 4) Is the defendant able to testify in his own defense and finally, 5) what extent, if any, will his mental condition deteriorate under the stress of trial.
Mental Examination by Medical Professional:
If the court has "reasonable ground" to doubt the defendant's mental capacity to proceed, they "shall" order a mental examination. Once the issue of the defendant's mental incapacity is raised, the criminal proceedings must come to a half until the Court determines the defendant to be competent. The defendant is presumed competent and it is important that any motion the defense attorney files on his behalf arguing lack of competency must allege facts justifying specific reasons to doubt the defendant is competent. For instance, defense attorneys and/or their clients can't allege that since the defendant is confused, depressed, lacked clear recollection of the offense, or if they have been previously examined at mental institution would most likely be insufficient to justify a court ordering a mental examination.
What happens if the Court finds "reasonable ground" for a mental examination?
The court shall appoint a sanity commission to examine and report on the mental state of the accused within seven days of a mental examination being ordered. The commission shall consist of at least two physicians and must have experience in forensic evaluations. A contradictory hearing will then be set for a court hearing to determine the defendant's competency to proceed. It is important to understand that even though these medical evaluations are important, the Judge makes the final determination of competency and is encouraged to not simply adopt the conclusions of the physicians. The Judge's determination as to competency does not just turn on whether or not the defendant has a mental defect, but the Judge must make their determination in relation to the 1) nature of the charge ( is this possession of cocaine or 2nd degree murder) 2) the complexity of the case (does this case invovle simple possession of drugs with just police officers involved, or does it involve a murder with multiple witnesses, forensic evidence, etc.) 3) gravity of the decisions facing the accused at trial (is the defendant looking at 5 years or life in prison?)
What if the accused is found incompetent?
If the defendant is found incompetent, the court shall commit the defendant to an appropriate mental facility or as long as the incapacity exists. However, the defendant cannot be held beyond the maximum sentence he/she could receive if actually convicted of the crime charged. If it is determined over an extended period of time that the defendant will not be competent to proceed to trial in the foreseeable future, the defendant must be released or the civil commitment proceedings must begin.
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