We’ve all followed the legal wrangling over Jared Lee Loughner’s mental condition, and the terms ‘insanity’ and ‘competency’ are being thrown about while the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Public Defender’s Office fight about the administration of forced medication. There are two different legal concepts in play here, both of them related to the defendant’s mental condition, but each of them focusing on the defendant’s psychology at different points in time . . .
1. Competency To Stand Trial (at the time of trial)
In order to be constitutionally put on trial, to put it bluntly, you have to have at least a few eggs in your basket. Our system of criminal justice requires that the defendant have a basic understanding what he’s accused of and how a criminal trial works, and that he has some basic ability to communicate with his defense lawyers and participate in his own defense.
I’m making a huge simplification, but as a rule of thumb anyone who can understand a Schoolhouse Rock civics lesson, sit through a half-hour of Cops on television, and speak with their lawyer without intrusive delusions or extreme behavioral disturbances is probably competent to stand trial.
If the defendant is a drooling catatonic, a floridly hallucinating psychotic, or suffers from severe brain injury or developmental disability, they won’t pass this simple ‘Competency’ test. Under our constitution they cannot be put on trial, because they can’t understand what’s happening to them and they have no actual ability to defend themselves. Trial competency is determined by psychological and neuropsychological testing at the time of trial, and the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime is completely irrelevant.
Most potentially ‘insane’ defendants are still ‘competent’ to stand trial.
And many ‘incompetent’ defendants can be restored to ‘competency’ and put on trial. Some come to court in a state of active and severe psychosis due to mental illness or drug abuse, and they get a short vacation at a secure mental facility where they’re either dried out (if they were ‘tweaking’) or medicated with psychotropic drugs to normalize their mental state.
Other incompetent defendants, particularly those incapacitated by developmental disabilities, brain injury, or untreatable autism-spectrum disorders, will never be able to participate meaningfully in their own defense, and their criminal charges are dismissed. They don’t go free, however: they’re civilly committed to mental hospitals until they’re deemed to be no danger to themselves or others.
2. Insanity (at the time of the offense)
For the same reasons that we do not put toddlers in jail, we do not convict truly insane defendants of crimes. A true lunatic, with no grasp of reality or no concept of what they’re doing (while they’re doing something horrible) is no more in touch with reality or in control over their own actions than a squalling three year-old.
Insanity at the time of the crime is often more difficult to prove than incapacity to stand trial, because the forensic psychologist has to make a determination of what the defendant’s mental condition was several months ago, instead of where their head is at right now.
There are many different legal definitions of ‘insanity’ as a defense to criminal charges, and I won’t go into all of them here. The federal version of the defense is found at 18 U.S.C. section 17:
“It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any Federal Statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense.”
Loughner’s defense team will undoubtedly claim at trial (if they have to) that their client was unaware of the nature of what he was doing as he armed himself, shot a busload of victims, and attempted to reload and shoot some more. They’ll also try to claim that he didn’t understand that it was wrong to shoot nineteen people he’d never met.
The U.S. Attorney has succeeded in having Loughner forcibly medicated with powerful anti-psychotic medications. The ostensible reason for this: Loughner is a danger to others in prison. This is a load of BS. They really want him medicated so he can be found competent to stand trial, and so he’ll look as normal as possible while his attorneys try to save his life by claiming that he’s completely crazy.
The defense team wants him to stay crazy, for his own good. If he stays crazy and ‘incompetent’ he cannot be tried or sent to prison, and even though he’ll probably never go free, he’ll never face the death penalty for the murder of a federal judge and five others.
And if they do have to go to trial, it will be very hard for them to convince a jury that, even though Loughner might seem calm, quiet and reasonably normal at trial, he was legally insane when he went on a shooting rampage at a suburban strip-mall. On May 25th, the judge ruled that Loughner was incompetent (too crazy) to stand trial, and his lawyers want him to stay that way.
At this point, that’s probably not gonna happen.