The U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone the right to a fair trial. But, what happens when the defendant isn’t capable of participating fully in their defense because of a mental illness or developmental disability? Can a person’s trial be deemed fair if they’re unable to participate in their own defense?
In California, nobody can be forced to stand trial or be convicted of a crime if they’re unable to understand what’s going on in court or rationally participate in their own defense. When someone is charged with a crime because there’s evidence they could have committed it, prosecutors want to get a conviction to hold the person accountable. As such, it can be difficult to prove that someone isn’t competent to stand trial.
In order for someone to be considered incompetent to stand trial, one of the following criteria must be met:
•The defendant is unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings, or
•The defendant is unable to assist their defense lawyer in a rational manner
According to California law, defendants must have a rational, as well as factual, understanding of the proceedings against them. Under this definition, a person doesn’t necessarily need to be insane or suffering from some sort of chronic mental disorder to be considered unfit to stand trial. A person with a severe mental disability would also qualify. While a person with a mental disorder, such as someone who suffers from severe paranoia or delusions, can be found incompetent to stand trial, it doesn’t equate to the insanity defense.
Insanity is a complete legal defense which, if successful, means that the defendant can never be found guilty or punished for the crime. They can still be remanded to a mental institution. When someone is found incompetent to stand trial, they can still be found guilty of the crime they are charged with committing in the future, if they are later determined to be fit to stand trial after mental health counseling.
To determine whether or not a defendant is competent to stand trial a series of smaller hearings are held regarding whether the individual is competent to stand trial. The point of these trials is to understand the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the trial, not if they’re guilty of committing the crime. If it’s determined that, at the time of the trial, the defendant is not competent to stand trial, they are usually sent to a mental health institution to receive treatment in the hopes of bringing them into a mental state in which they are competent to stand trial.
If the competency hearings result in a ruling that the defendant is competent to stand trial, then the criminal trial will proceed from the point at which it left off to determine the defendant›s competency.