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Competency to Stand Trial Explained

How does competency to stand trial differ from the insanity defense?

Competency to stand trial is an essential legal principle that protects the defendant’s right to a fair trial.  Justice requires that criminal defendants understand the nature of the charges against them, appreciate the penalties, and be able to communicate with their attorney.  If a defendant is deemed to lack the capacity to stand trial, then all criminal proceedings must stop and competency must be restored before the prosecution can move forward.  There are many misconceptions when it comes to competency, and it is often confused with the insanity defense.  Our New York state criminal defense lawyers explain the basics of competency and how it differs from the insanity defense below.

Competency to Stand Trial vs. Mental State During Commission of the Offense

It is important to understand that competency to stand trial is not a defense to the crime and has nothing to do with the defendant’s mental state at the time of commission of the offense.  Rather, the issue of competency addresses solely the defendant’s mental state during the criminal proceedings.  Instead of constituting a defense, competency is a legal basic required for continued prosecution against a criminal defendant.

The insanity defense, as it is commonly referred, is a defense raised to negate legal culpability for the alleged crime.  A viable insanity defense will establish that the defendant should not be held responsible for his or her actions due to legal insanity at the time of the crime. Defendants who plead not guilty by reason of insanity will stand trial, but may not be convicted of the crime charged.  At times, competency and the insanity defense will both be an issue, but the defendant must be deemed competent before the defense can be raised and the prosecution move forward.

Determining Competency to Stand Trial

The issue of competency can be raised at any time by any of the parties, including defense counsel or the court.  Once competency has been raised, the trial court can order a psychological evaluation. During the evaluation, the psychologist will explore whether the defendant understands the charges, can communicate with defense counsel, can make reasoned decisions regarding the case, and understands the nature and gravity of the charges.  Should the defendant be deemed incompetent, the court will order him or her to undergo treatment in an attempt to restore competency.

 

Posted in: Criminal Defense