So, about competency for trial

After I shared an article on Charley’s Facebook page about how after years of psychiatric treatment and a second opinion, Catherine Hoggle is STILL mentally incompetent to stand trial in the murders of her children Sarah and Jacob, someone was asking questions about what it meant to be competent or incompetent to stand trial, so I thought I’d talk about that cause probably more than one person doesn’t know.

Basically, in order to face a criminal trial in the U.S. you have to be mentally capable of defending yourself. The barrier to this is not very high; you can have low intelligence and be severely mentally ill and still be competent to stand trial.

You have to know the basics of what a trial is, and the roles of everyone involved: the state says you broke X Law, the prosecutor is against you, the defense attorney is for you, the judge makes sure the trial is fair and legal, the witnesses tell what they know and the jury decides if you are in fact guilty of breaking X Law. A child could be made to understand these things.

You also have to be capable of working with your defense, and this part is what causes problems for people like Catherine Hoggle, who is incompetent to stand trial because of her mental illness.

Now, Catherine has schizophrenia and every psychiatrist who has tested her competency over the last few years, including the one the government recently hired for a second opinion on the matter, agrees she is not competent to stand trial but with treatment could become competent in the future. (She has recently been prescribed Clozapine, the last-resort Holy Grail of antipsychotic drugs which can work wonders for treatment-resistant schizophrenia.)

Speaking hypothetically here, if you are very intelligent and understand the mechanics of a trial and the roles of everyone involved, but you have a severe schizophrenic delusion that your defense attorney is actually an alien from the Planet Zog who only wants your brain for the Zog beings’ Museum of Humanoid Anatomy and will suck out your brain through your esophagus if you so much as part your lips in the attorney’s presence, obviously this is going to present severe problems in building your defense. If you genuinely believe your defense attorney is not actually on your side and only wants to steal your brain for alien naturalists to gawk at in a museum, you’re not going to be able to work with your attorney to come up with a defense in your upcoming murder trial. And the Constitution says the government can’t put you on trial if you are incapable of defending yourself.

So in order to make you competent, the government puts you in a secure psychiatric facility and has psychiatrists and therapists and other mental health clinicians treat you in hopes that you will eventually become well enough to cast aside the whole “Planet Zog wants my brain” delusion at least in part. The goal is just to get you to be able to talk to your defense and assist them in whatever strategy they’re going to use to defend you, and to know what’s going on with the trial and potential consequences.

So that’s my TED Talk on mental fitness for trial. Hope you found it illuminating.

2 thoughts on “So, about competency for trial

  1. Sonya August 12, 2019 / 12:42 am

    That’s a pretty straight forward explanation. Makes sense.

    When I read Sarah Grace Hoggle’s case, I see under Distinguishing Characteristics she’s listed as male, so I thoughst I’d post a head’s up to you if that is indeed incorrect. Hope you don’t mind. 🙂

  2. Pamela May 29, 2022 / 4:21 am

    I know I’m posting much later (I’m catching up), but I used to work at a hospital in Rusk, Texas that treated persons adjudged to be incompetent to stand trial. One of my jobs was to help them become competent, at least in the area of court terminology and info. Many of them were so psychotic that they were NEVER going be found competent, which led to an interesting situation – they then would become permanently institutionalized, with the issue of whether they were actually guilty of their accused crimes never addressed. It was a way to keep extremely mentally ill people off the street, but they were legally prisoners. No due process here. Another very interesting issue was that many of the patients WERE quite dangerous, murderously so, and if they were found competent and went to trial, they could be found “not guilty by reason of insanity at the time” and acquitted. Then very violent persons would end up back in society -not a good thing. It was a fascinating job – I had to pass through half a dozen locked doors on the way to my office and be searched upon entering each day, to be sure I had not fallen in love with a patient and was sneaking a weapon in. ANYTHING that could be used as a weapon – a perfume bottle, a fork – was forbidden. We called it working “behind the fence” and I got “combat pay” for the job. I can say I’ve known dozens of murderers…some of them I worked with for years.

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