Monday, August 25, 2008

Upholding Legal Rights of Mentally Ill Defendants

That's the title of a new posting on the blog Women in Crime Ink, by Lucy Puryear, M.D.:

"On June 19, 2008, the Supreme Court of the U.S. issued a decision in which it held that a higher standard must be used to determine defendants' competence to represent themselves in criminal cases than the test used to determine the accuseds' competence to stand trial. Plainly speaking, this means that while a mentally ill defendant can be found competent to stand trial it does not necessarily follow that they can competently represent themselves as their own counsel.

Fundamentally this could be viewed as a negative decision for the mentally ill. One of our constitutional rights is self-representation in court. We are allowed to tell our story the way we want it told and to plead our case in a manner that we believe is in our own best interest. Now most of us would do a pretty terrible job of maneuvering ourselves through a court case, but sometimes taking your lawyers advice doesn't turn out as you'd hoped. I have heard defendants ask, 'Why didn't my lawyer do this, or why didn't they say that?' Sometimes juries will express, 'Why didn't we hear from the defendant, I want to hear his version of the story.' Not speaking for yourself is not always the right decision.

It becomes very complicated in a case where the defendant is floridly psychotic (hearing voices, speaking in gibberish). Nothing useful will come from that defendant trying to conduct his own trial. The court process becomes derailed and nothing good is accomplished for either the defense or the prosecution. Often the defendant by his very mental state convicts himself with little effort by the prosecution.

But does it make sense to allow someone to be competent to stand trial and yet too ill to represent themselves? Most courtrooms are all too ready to allow a mentally ill defendant to be tried. Recently the Supreme Court of the United States said yes in the Indiana v. Edwards decision.

In July 1999, Ahmad Edwards was discovered trying to steal a pair of shoes from an Indiana department store. After being discovered, he fired a gun at a store security officer and wounded a bystander. He was charged with attempted murder, battery with a deadly weapon, criminal recklessness and theft. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and subsequently found incompetent to stand trial and was committed to a state psychiatric hospital for further evaluation and treatment. His competency and mental status fluctuated over the course of five years and he was not found competent to proceed to trial until July 2004.

In June 2005, Edwards stood trial. He asked to represent himself but the trial court rejected this request and the jury found him guilty of criminal recklessness and theft but failed to reach a verdict on the charges of attempted murder and battery. The State decided to retry him on the attempted murder and battery charges and he was retried in December 2005. The trial court again found that he was competent to stand trial but not competent to represent himself.

Despite being represented by counsel at his retrial, the jury convicted him on both counts. Edwards appealed, arguing that he had been wrongfully deprived of his constitutional right to represent himself. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which addressed the legal question of whether the standard for allowing defendants to represent themselves at trial should be higher than the standard for finding defendants competent to stand trial.

The Court decided that there was a higher standard for representing yourself than the standard for competency. To be found competent to stand trial you must be able to consult with your attorney with a 'reasonable degree of rational understanding.' This means in general that you are able to know what you have been charged with, be able to consult in formulating your own defense, and be able to explain the nature of the pleas involved. (In an interesting aside, Andrea Yates was found competent to stand trial although she initially wanted to plead guilty so that she would be executed by the state which was the only entity who could kill Satan inside of her. She understood the plea but her psychosis was unable to initially allow her to follow her lawyer's advice.)

The Edwards decision states that to be competent to represent yourself you must have the ability for 'organization of defense, making motions, arguing points of law . . . questioning witnesses and addressing the court and jury.' The court is stating that those that are mentally ill may be well enough be found competent but still not be able to represent themselves. While this may appear to be taking away the rights from persons with a disability it may be ultimately in their best legal defense. The Court also comments on the humaneness of the decision, 'A right of self-representation at trial will not affirm the dignity of a defendant who lacks the mental capacity to conduct his defense without the assistance of counsel,' Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote. 'To the contrary, given that defendant's uncertain mental state, the spectacle that could well result from his self-representation at trial is at least as likely to prove humiliating as ennobling.'

The United States has long struggled with the treatment of the mentally ill. From locking them up in sanitariums for years to locking them up in jails. No one knows quite what to do with the mentally ill defendant who, although it may be obvious that they've committed a crime, it's also obvious that they are seriously disturbed. In Houston alone it is estimated that some 50% of the inmates in the juvenile justice system are seriously and chronically mentally ill. Jail is not a great treatment for a psychiatric disorder.

Texas in particular has struggled with the death penalty and the mentally ill criminal. We have had a history of executing those with known, documented, and profound psychotic illness. This is an embarrassment for our state and a terrible example for respecting human rights. This ruling by the United States Supreme Court is a very small step forward in assuring that those who commit crimes and are suffering from mental illness have both their rights protected and receive fair trails [sic]. What to do with a mentally ill defendant after conviction is the topic of another blog. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on a very complicated issue."



Anwalt für Erbrecht said...

This is an interesting post. I agree that many defendants do the same after they loose the case. I think it makes no sense to allow someone to be competent to stand trial and yet too ill to represent themselves and especially the one who is mentally ill.

Anonymous said...

very useful post. I would love to follow you on twitter.