Competency to Stand Trial

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: My brother was just sent to API for an evaluation to see if he is competent to stand trial. What does that mean, and how does someone at API determine if he is competent to stand trial?

Competency to Stand Trial is a legal question, and determination of Competency to Stand Trial is based on a legal standard. The legal standard for Competency to Stand Trial was articulated in the U. S. Supreme Court decision Dusky v. the United States (1960).

In a one-page document, the Supreme Court ruled that to be competent to stand trial, it must be determined that a defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding—and whether he has rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.”

“Consult with his lawyer” was further clarified in Drope v. Missouri (1975) when the court opined that a defendant must not only be able to consult with counsel, but must be able to assist counsel in development of a defense.

In Godinez v. Moran (1993), Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion with the majority opinion, “Although the Dusky Standard refers to ‘Ability to Consult with lawyer,’ the crucial component of the inquiry is the defendant’s possession of ‘a reasonable degree of rational understanding.’”

If a defendant is found not competent to proceed, the Alaska Statute requires that a cause of either a mental illness or a mental defect be established. This requires a diagnosis established through a combination of Clinical Interview, history, and psychological testing.

The second part of your question asks how someone at API can determine if a defendant is competent to stand trial. In the case of your brother, a psychologist will evaluate him to determine if he (1) is able to consult with his attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and is able to assist his attorney in developing a defense, (2) has a factual understanding of the proceedings against him and a factual understanding of the roles of the players in a court of law, and (3) has a rational understanding of the proceedings against him. This includes the ability to make decisions with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and be able to make some reasonable prediction as to the outcome of his case.

One important factor was left out of your question, and that concerns who ultimately determines if your brother is competent to stand trial. The judge, not the psychologist, decides the ultimate opinion after reviewing the report of the psychologist or psychologists and hearing oral arguments by the defense and the prosecution.

Surveys of public defenders indicate that they have concerns of competency in 10-15% of their cases, but raise the question in less than half of those cases. When the question is raised in court, approximately 30% of those evaluated are found not competent to stand trial.

However, the percent found not competent to stand trial varied widely from 3% to 70%, depending on the jurisdiction, and the type of clients being evaluated. Based on best estimates, less than 2% of the total population of those charged with a crime will be found not competent to stand trial.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

Example: 9075434113

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