Yesterday I was reading online that the man accused of killing three people and wounding nine others in a shooting rampage last year at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado was declared incompetent to stand trial.
Robert Lewis Dear, with his disheveled hair and thick beard was visibly angered at the ruling. He reportedly called the judge a “filthy animal” as he was led out of the courtroom.
Dear was evaluated by two court-appointed state psychologists. Both concluded he was suffering from a psychotic delusional disorder that rendered him mentally unfit to stand trial. While he could comprehend the legal proceedings from a factual standpoint, his delusions and paranoia left him unable to meaningfully assist in his own defense.
After his arrest, Dear harbored a belief that he was being followed by federal agents before the shooting. During his incarceration he has reportedly smeared himself with his own excrement and drank his own urine from the toilet because he was convinced the jail was poisoning his drinking water.
Dear readily admits that he is guilty, and he calls himself a “warrior for the babies.” Following the judge’s ruling he will be transported to a state mental hospital in Pueblo, Colorado for “restorative treatment.” His status will be reviewed again in 90 days.
Dear has insisted he is mentally competent, and he demanded he be permitted to fire his attorney and represent himself.
Competency To Stand Trial Versus Criminal Responsibility
As I was scrolling through the comments at the end of the article, it was evident that many of the readers misunderstood what it means to be incompetent to stand trial. Several people thought if Mr. Dear was competent to buy a gun then he was competent to stand trial. Other people thought this meant he was getting away with murder.
I tried to leave a thoughtful comment explaining the difference between incompetence and accountability, but as I wrote it I decided the topic was more worthy of a blogpost.
So, what does it mean to be incompetent to stand trial? Well, it can mean a lot of things. But it doesn’t mean that Mr. Dear will not be held accountable for his actions.
Every defendant has the right to face their accuser in court and present a defense. However, in order to do so, he or she needs to be able to understand a few things first.
To begin with, the defendant must demonstrate a rational and factual understanding of the legal proceedings against them. They must be able to cite their charges and appreciate their severity, and know the possible sentence they face if they are found guilty.
They also need to understand the roles of key courtroom personnel (i.e., the jobs of the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and the jury), and be able to appreciate that the judicial process is an adversarial one.
They should have a basic understanding of what happens at a trial, and understand how a plea bargain works. This is especially important since most cases are resolved with a plea bargain.
In addition to grasping the legal proceedings, a defendant must also be able to communicate with their attorney in a coherent fashion. They must be able to respond to the evidence against them and collaborate with their attorney to develop a rational defense strategy.
In deciding whether to have a trial or accept a plea bargain, defendants must be able to follow their attorney’s logic when legal options are explained to them, and then be able to use that logic to reason in a self-preserving fashion. This is an excerpt of a conversation I once had with a defendant who brilliantly demonstrated self-preservation:
Me: So, your attorney thinks if you go to trial there is a good chance you will be found guilty. If so, you’ll probably be sentenced to a year in jail. But, you could take the plea deal the state is offering you, get probation, and go home. What are you thinking you’re going to do?
Defendant: Oh, I’d rather be found guilty and just do my time in jail.
Me: That’s interesting. Why do you want to do that?
Defendant: Doc, I’m an addict, and everybody knows that addicts can’t do probation. Sooner or later I’m going to miss one of my appointments, or I’m not going to have the money for the stupid fee, and then they’ll put me in jail for even longer than I’m facing now. So I’d rather just be found guilty, do my time, and not owe anybody anything when I’m done.
This person was clearly able to weigh and manipulate the legal options available to him and make a rational decision in his own best interest, even though his response was not one you would necessarily expect.
Finally, competency also requires the defendant to be able to track evidence at a trial, and be able to plead and tesify in a relevant manner should they decide to take the stand.
Based on that description it might sound like a graduate degree is needed to be competent to stand trial. But it’s actually not as complicated as it sounds. Even some people with intellectual disabilities can be competent to stand trial.
When the defendant can do all of those things, they are able to meaningfully participate in their own defense and proceed with trial.
The purpose of the trial is to determine whether or not the defendant is guilty, and it is then that the defendant’s criminal responsibility will be decided.
If Mr. Dear is found guilty he will probably be sentenced to prison for the rest of his natural life. If he is acquitted, which seems highly unlikely, he will go home. If he pursues a mental defense and is found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity, he will be sentenced to a state facility that more closely resembles a jail than a hospital, and he will remain there until a judge or the hospital staff decides he is well enough to be released.
Competency and Robert Lewis Dear
According to the Denver Post, Mr. Dear had an adequate factual understanding of the legal proceedings, but his delusions and psychotic disorder prevented him from meaningful trial participation.
Although I have not personally evaluated him myself, this analysis means that Mr. Dear probably understands his charges, the possible sanctions he faces if found guilty, the roles of the key courtroom players, and the difference between a trial and a plea bargain.
However, due to his psychosis, he is most likely unable to rationally respond to the evidence against him, follow his attorney’s logic in making legal decisions, and collaborate in developing a defense. It is also possible that if Mr. Dear takes the stand or is asked to speak in court, he might not make any sense.
If Mr. Dear cannot reason or communicate relevantly with his attorney or with the court, then it is a violation of his due process to proceed with trial.
Most psychotic defendants are able to be restored to competency within a year or so. They eventually have their day in court, and more often than not they are found guilty.
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