A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Jared Lee Loughner is incompetent to stand trial for the January mass shooting at a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona that killed 6 people and wounded 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Since then, “craziness” (if you’ll pardon the colloquialism) has ensued, with a number of reporters calling to find out more about what exactly this means. I like talking to reporters and will always make time in my schedule to answer their questions because I believe it is important to share accurate, high-quality information (which is also the primary reason why I write for this website). So, what exactly does it mean when someone is incompetent to stand trial and how is this different from the insanity defense?

Criminal Psychology – Forensic Mental Health – Mental Health Disorders

There is a fundamental right that all individuals have to be a present and active participant in any criminal court proceedings against them. This means that we all have the right to be physically, as well as mentally, present at a trial against us. Various legal commentators have delineated the reasons for this right, including: to safeguard the accuracy of any criminal adjudication; to guarantee a fair trial; to preserve the dignity and integrity of the legal process; and to be certain that the defendant, if found guilty, knows why he is being punished.

Two of the reporters I spoke with who were kind enough to send links to their articles were Jeremy Singer-Vine of Slate Magazine and Sabriya Rice of CNN Health (see also David Nakamura’s article in The Washington Post).

Upon reading some of the comments that readers have posted about these articles, it became clear to me just how many people are unclear about the distinction between competency and insanity.

Competency to Stand Trial

There is a long history of competency doctrine going back to at least the 17th century. The purpose of the competency doctrine is to ensure both the protection of the defendant as well as the protection of the state’s interest in fair and reliable proceedings. The standard for competency to stand trial in the United States was set out in Dusky v. United States (1960), and elucidated in subsequent case law (see Weiter v. Settle, 1961; Drope v. Missouri, 1975; and Godinez v. Moran, 1993).

In essence, in order to be considered competent to stand trial, a defendant must be able to factually understand the proceedings, rationally understand the proceedings (that is, apply the factual knowledge to his or her own case and show an appreciation of the personal importance and consequences of the proceedings), engage in rational decision making (that is, make decisions that are not based on delusional or irrational beliefs), and assist counsel in his or her defense. If a defendant is unable to perform one or more of these basic abilities, and the cause of this inability is mental disorder or cognitive impairment, he or she is considered to be incompetent to stand trial.

The competency determination is concerned with the defendant’s present mental state—not his or her mental state at the time of the crime (that would be a question of legal insanity). If a defendant is deemed incompetent to stand trial, he or she is sent to a state hospital or a forensic facility for competency restoration (treatment). Once he or she has been restored to competency, the proceedings resume. Thus, a determination of incompetence simply delays the trial process until the defendant can be mentally present.

Quick Facts about Competency to Stand Trial

  • Approximately 60,000 individuals are evaluated with respect to competency to stand trial every year in the United States
  • Rates of incompetence vary by jurisdiction but are typically about 20% (meaning that 20% of those who are evaluated are found incompetent)
  • Most defendants (90% or so) are restored to competency
  • About 75% of defendants are restored to competency within about 6 months
  • The 2 most difficult groups to restore to competency are those who have irremediable cognitive disorders (such as mental retardation) and chronically psychotic defendant with lengthy histories of inpatient hospitalization

Insanity – Criminal Responsibility – Mental State at the time of Offense

Insanity, or Mental State at the time of the Offense (MSO), concerns the issue of criminal responsibility (whether someone should be held criminally accountable for his or her actions). Most states have statutes that allow a defendant to present a mental state defense. Although the legal standard for insanity varies by jurisdiction, the two most common standards are the M’Naughten Standard and the American Law Institute Standard.

In essence, to be considered insane (or not criminally responsible for one’s actions) it must be shown that the defendant did not have the capacity to understand the nature or quality of his or her actions (that is, did not know what they were doing) or did not have the capacity to know what he or she was doing was wrong. Of course, just like with incompetence, the cause for the incapacity must be a mental illness or cognitive impairment.

Individuals who are found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI), or not criminally responsible for their actions, are typically sent to a secure forensic facility for treatment rather than to a correctional facility. The length of detention at the forensic facility varies according to the severity of the mental illness and the risk that the individual poses to the public. It is not uncommon for an individual to be detained in the forensic hospital for longer than he or she would have been sentenced had a guilty verdict been rendered.

Quick Facts about the Insanity Defense

  • The insanity defense is raised in approximately one-tenth of 1% of all felony cases (that is, in about 1 out of every 1000 cases)
  • The insanity defense is successful in about 25% of the cases in which it is raised
  • The insanity defense is not often raised and, when it is, it is not often successful; however, the public grossly overestimates both the frequency and the success of insanity pleas

Commentary on the Jared Lee Loughner Case

There were a number of “red flags” raised in the Jared Lee Loughner case that were indicative of this man’s mental difficulties. Shortly after the incident occurred, Mr. Loughner was described by others as being “creepy” and “disturbed” and as going on politically motivated “rants” wherein he would spew paranoid-like and delusional ideas.  He had recently been asked to leave the college he was attending for various behavioral issues and not allowed to return until he had undergone a mental health evaluation. These types of indicators, coupled with the fact that Mr. Loughner is in his early 20s, raise significant concern about his mental health. Men, if they are to have a psychotic break, will typically have the first break in their late teens or early 20s (women have their first psychotic break much later). By all accounts, Mr. Loughner appears to be an individual who is clearly struggling with his mental health.

It seems that there are a number of people who don’t understand how significantly a serious mental illness can impact one’s life. Some of the commentary that I have read includes comments that appear to point blame at Mr. Loughner, at his parents, at school officials. The simple fact of the matter here is that Mr. Loughner suffers from a severe and chronic mental illness that can have a devastating impact on his life as well as the lives of those closest to him. This is not a time for pointing fingers and levying blame…this is a time to ensure that Mr. Loughner gets the treatment he needs and that the families of those whose lives he destroyed or damaged get the help that they need.

I am so impressed with Mary Reed’s recent statement about Jared Lee Loughner’s incompetency determination. Having been one of the victims who was injured by Mr. Loughner, Ms. Reed is able to understand the severity of Mr. Loughner’s mental illness and the need for him to receive treatment and be restored to competence before being able to proceed with his trial.

At this point in time, there is no reason to believe that Mr. Loughner will not be restored to competency. Most individuals are restorable and so there is a very good chance that he will eventually be deemed competent and will proceed to trial. If and when he is restored, it should not be a surprise if he raises a mental state defense. Mr. Loughner is being treated at the Federal Medical Facility in Springfield, Missouri, where he will receive high quality care by competent professionals.

Resources for Professionals

Best Practices Series: Evaluation of Criminal Responsibility

Best Practices Series: Evaluation of Competence to Stand Trial