Competent to Stand Trial

Laura Anderson

Competent to Stand Trial           

If a person is unable to properly defend themselves in court due to mental or physical disorder, they may have their court date postponed on grounds of incompetency to stand trial (Roesch, 2010). 

Defining Competency: The Constitutional Standard

Determining the competency of a defendant has caused a lot of controversy throughout history.  The standard of competency dates all the way back to English common law that if a person is “mad” that they cannot properly defend themselves in court (Cruise, 1998).  But what accurately defines being “mad”? 

The case of Dusky vs. United States was the first to identify and define stipulations for competency apart from general mental health.  Milton Dusky charges of the assistance of rape and kidnapping were petitioned on the grounds that he was not competent to stand trial.  This court case defined a two prong standard for defining competency.  The defendant must “1) have sufficient ability to consult with an attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; and 2) have a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings” (Cruise, 1998, p. 37). 

Decisional Competence

Several issues have stemmed from the “one-size-fits-all” Dusky standard (Felthous, 2003, p.282).  The Dusky court did not specify what kind of conditions could make a person incompetent to stand trial. (Mossman, et al., 2007). 

Is it fair to allow someone to defend themselves if they are incapable of doing so?

The 1966 case of Pate vs. Robinson deals with protecting an individual’s right to not to be tried while legally incompetent.  Robinson was charged with homicide and was found by a psychiatrist to be competent to stand trial.  Complying with the Dusky standard, he was found to fully understand his charges and could competently work with his attorney.  During the trial however, the defense counsel found that he was not competent and requested for additional psychiatric testimony, which was denied by the court.  The Supreme Court ruled, however, this refusal went against the Fourteenth Amendment which requires a fair trial.  The ruling stood that whenever there was sufficient evidence to suggest that there needed to be a hearing to ensure the competency of the defendant (Mossman, et al., 2007).

The decision made in Pate vs. Robinson was upheld in the 1974 case of Drope vs. Missouri.  Drope was accused of raping his wife and shot himself on the second day of the trial.  The court proceedings continued without him.  Referring to Pate vs. Robinson, the Supreme Court held that the Drope’s psychiatric report and suicide attempt were sufficient evidence for doubt about his competence at the time of the trial (Mossman, et al., 2007).  This case formed the standard that a defendant’s behavior, demeanor during trial, and previous psychiatric evaluations are relevant in determining their competency.

Conclusion: Competent and Incompetent Criminal Defendants

A review was done that quantitatively analyzed thirty different studies which compared competent and incompetent criminal defendants.  The aim of this review was to determine which variables were associated with a defendant’s competency to stand trial.  This review found that there are 3 main variables that are most highly correlated with incompetency.

1)        “Poor performance on psychological tests that are designed to assess a defendant’s functional abilities in regard to legal issues and proceedings” (Nicholson & Kugler, 1991, p. 363)

Standard intelligence tests and certain scales of the MMPI were found to be significantly correlated with competency status, however these correlations were rather small.  However, much larger correlations were found between forensic assessment instruments and competency status.

2)         “A psychotic diagnosis” (Nicholson, et al., 1991, p. 363)

Defendants who had a diagnosed psychotic disorder were judged as incompetent more frequently than those who were not psychotic.  However, this study did not find a significant correlation between the diagnosis of mental retardation and judgments of incompetence.  This study suggests that this may be the case because there are many varying degrees of mental retardation and those closer to the IQ cut off of 70 are more likely to be found competent to stand trial.

3)        Psychiatric symptoms that suggest severe psychopathology” (Nicholson & et al., 1991, p. 363)

Specific characteristics that showed the strongest correlation were: manifested disorientation, impaired memory, poor judgment, thought and communication processes, hallucinations, and bizarre, unmanageable behavior.


Cruise, K.R., & Rogers, R. (1998). An analysis of competency to stand trial: an integration of case law and clinical knowledge. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 16, 35-50.

Felthous, A.R. (2003). Competence to stand trial. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 21, 281-283.

Mossman, D, Noffsinger, S.G, Ash, P, Frierson, R.L., & Gerbasi, J. (2007). AAPL practice guideline for the forensic psychiatric evaluation of competence to stand trial. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law,35, 3-67.

  Nicholson, R.A., & Kugler, K.E. (1991). Competent and incompetent criminal defendants:. Psychological Bulletin, 109(3), 355-370.

  Roesch, R. and McLachlan, K. (2010). Competency to stand trial. Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, 1–2.

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