In a recently concluded criminal case that took place in a Buffalo courtroom, 32-year-old Luke Wright was convicted of the brutal torture, rape and sodomy of his half-sister, 23-year-old Laura Cummings. Rape, sodomy with a broomstick, torture, incest between mother and son, brain damage from a baseball bat to the head…this case had it all. While this case is disturbing on many levels—the least of which is the fact that Luke and Laura’s mother, Eva Cummings, was sentenced to more than 50 years for brutally torturing, suffocating, and killing Laura—it raises the issue of the politics involved in high-profile cases with respect to finding a defendant competent to stand trial.

For a brief overview of the case, see the link below:

http://www.buffalonews.com/topics/laura-cummings-murder/article396513.ece

Mental Disability and Incompetence to Stand Trial

Luke Wright and Laura Cummings, by all accounts, were both mentally disabled. Testimony by Eva Cummings at the trial of her son, Luke, indicated that she believed Laura to be more intelligent than her son, Luke.

Despite the fact that both parties agreed that Luke Wright was mentally retarded, there were conflicting accounts between the prosecution and defense with respect to the degree of intellectual impairment involved. Intelligence testing conducted by the school district estimated Luke’s IQ to be as low as 52, which would put him at the 1st percentile for intellectual functioning (meaning that out of 100 randomly selected individuals, Luke would be considered more intelligent than 1 of them). The prosecution argued that Luke suffered from mild mental retardation, placing him at the 10th percentile for intellectual functioning (meaning that he would be considered more intelligent than 10 of 100 randomly selected individuals). Either way, Luke is still considered to be impaired in terms of his intellectual development.

Defense experts evaluated Luke with respect to his competence to stand trial and opined Luke to be incompetent to stand trial, indicating that he was unable to fully understand the nature of the charges against him and was unable to assist defense counsel in his case.

For a brief synopsis of the competence issues, please click the link below:

http://www.buffalonews.com/incoming/article395557.ece

In order to proceed with trial, a defendant must be competent. This is generally taken to mean that the defendant must be able to understand, both factually and rationally, the nature and object of the proceedings, and to assist defense counsel in the presentation of a defense. As a general rule, individuals with diagnoses of mental retardation are not automatically considered to be incompetent—the mental retardation or cognitive impairment must be linked to deficits in the functional abilities required of the defendant to stand trial, such as the ability to rationally or factually understand the nature of the charges, to understand the personal importance of the charges, to understand the nature of the proceedings, or to make rational decisions regarding some aspects of their defense (among others).

In the Luke Wright case, a well-known and well-respected forensic psychologist, Dr. Charles Ewing, testified that Luke was unable to understand the nature of the charges against him. Dr. Ewing opined that the fact that Luke was raised in a home where incest and inappropriate sexual relations occurred on a regular basis numbed him to the effects of sexual abuse. Far fetched? No, and certainly not for an individual with the type of cognitive impairment inherent in mental retardation.

Mentally retarded individuals have a tendency to be acquiescent and to go easily along with others. They also have a tendency to act impulsively and to agree with what others are saying, even though they may not understand what was said. Dr. Ewing testified that Luke Wright was unreliable and could not be trusted to provide an accurate or truthful report of what occurred. We know from research that these individuals will often be unable to provide a consistent and reliable narrative of events that occurred. We also know from research that individuals with the type of cognitive impairment inherent in mental retardation are more likely to provide false confessions and to confabulate when they do not know the answer to a question. Both of these issues appear to have been intrinsic to the Luke Wright case.

Oftentimes, the politics of high-profile cases and the desire to see someone held accountable for their behavior take precedence over the arguably more important issue of ensuring that defendants are capable of being more that just physically present in a courtroom. When this occurs, such as in this case, it is a travesty of justice.

Photo courtesy of buffalonews.com