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Competency to Stand Trial on Trial


Grant H. Morris


University of San Diego, School of Law - Professor of Law Emeritus

Ansar M. Haroun


University of California, San Diego

David Naimark


University of California, San Diego


Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2004

Abstract:     
This Article considers the legal standards for the determination of competency to stand trial, and whether those standards are understood and applied by psychiatrists and psychologists in the forensic evaluations they perform and in the judgments they make - judgments that are routinely accepted by trial courts as their own judgments. The Article traces the historical development of the competency construct and the development of two competency standards. One standard, used today in eight states that contain 25% of the population of the United States, requires that the defendant be able to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense "in a rational manner." The second, adopted by the Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960) as the Court's interpretation of the federal competency statute, requires that the defendant have an ability to consult with counsel with a reasonable degree of "rational understanding." The "rational manner" standard seemingly focuses on the defendant's behavior; the "rational understanding" standard seemingly focuses on the defendant's thinking.

The Article reports on a survey we conducted of 273 forensic psychiatrists and psychologists who were asked to read two case study vignettes and assess the competency of each criminal defendant using the "rational manner" standard, the "rational understanding" standard, and the federal statutory standard that merely requires that the defendant be able to "assist properly" in his or her defense. In one vignette, the defendant's thinking was irrational but his behavior was rational. In the other, the defendant's thinking was rational, but her behavior was irrational. In responding to both vignettes, more than three-fourths of all respondents either found the defendant competent under all three standards or incompetent under all three standards. Surprisingly, in answering the first vignette, the respondents divided almost equally in deciding whether the defendant was competent.

The Article analyzes the results of the study and concludes with specific proposals to improve competency to stand trial assessments. Fairness to the defendant requires that the competency standard be clearly defined and applied by those who assess and determine competency.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 72

Keywords: law and medicine, law and psychiatry, criminal law, competency to stand trial

JEL Classification: K00, K10

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Date posted: September 15, 2004  

Suggested Citation

Morris, Grant H. and Haroun, Ansar M. and Naimark, David, Competency to Stand Trial on Trial. Houston Journal of Health Law and Policy, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2004. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=591337

Contact Information

Grant Harold Morris (Contact Author)
University of San Diego, School of Law - Professor of Law Emeritus ( email )
5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
Ansar M. Haroun
University of California, San Diego ( email )
9500 Gilman Drive
Mail Code 0502
La Jolla, CA 92093-0502
United States
David Naimark
University of California, San Diego ( email )
9500 Gilman Drive
Mail Code 0502
La Jolla, CA 92093-0502
United States
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