Competency in criminal law is a tricky concept. Competency to stand trial is not the same as “insanity” when the crime occurred. Competency is whether or not you should be put to trial. Dusky v. United States established the standard by which you, the criminal defendant, are competent. You must be able to consult with your lawyer, in other words, be able to communicate with him and help yourself, and you must understand the nature of the proceedings against you. This means, you know that you are on trial, you understand that a court of law convened by citizens are going to put you in prison (or worse) if they convict you.
In reality, very, very few clients are incompetent. There are two reasons. First, standards are really pretty high that you are so incompetent that you can’t assist in your own defense. You must be quite mentally ill to not understand the proceedings against you or be able to assist in your own defense. It should be understood that the ability to “understand” the nature of the proceedings against you is not the same as being able to successfully or easily navigate the legal system.
The second is that in reality, the justice system doesn’t want people to not be held responsible for their actions. Local Chicago readers of this blog might remember the Jeanette Sliwinski case. Ms. Sliwinski decided to commit suicide by driving her car full speed through numerous intersections until she caused a triple fatality at a busy Northside intersection. She killed three young men on their lunch break (they worked for Shure Inc., an audio equipment company one of my good friends works for, he knew all three of the victims). It was decided that she was competent to stand to trial, even though at the time, it seemed that she really wasn’t. This sort of thing happens all the time. A person would appear, to the lay person, or the newspaper reader, to be absolutely nuts…but they aren’t in the eyes of the psychological professional, or by the standards of the law.
Which brings us to your 6th Amendment right to counsel. Everyone has the right to a lawyer in a criminal proceeding. Faretta v. California established the Constitutional right to be your own lawyer. As you have probably heard, the person who represents themselves has a fool for a lawyer. And let me just say, that in my own experience, 90% of people who want to represent themselves are generally mentally ill. Ask any public defender, prosecutor or judge who has spent any time in the system. The pro se lawyers are of one of two general types. One, is very, very nuts. The other, is pretty smart, but not smart enough to prevent lasting damage.
This finally gets us around to Indiana v. Edwards. This recent case by the Supreme Court at the end of their recent term decided that you can be competent to stand trial…but not competent enough to represent yourself as a lawyer.
In practical terms, this is probably a godsend to prosecutors and judges who have to deal with pro se defendants clogging up the system with frivolous motions and ridiculous defenses. On the other hand, public defenders are blanching at the prospect of a host of new clients. Generally the mentally ill are marginally employed and will only have the resources to hire a lawyer if their family does. They are distrustful, difficult and leery clients. It is going to strain public defender systems already at the breaking point.
It also calls into question the current competency standards. It seems to admit that the competency standard is both high and low at the same time. i.e. it’s hard to be crazy enough to not know what is going on around you, but it’s easy to be crazy enough not to be able to navigate the legal system. I understand that the legal system is complicated…it takes years of school and then years of experience to even start to master it. But when the Supreme Court admits that you might not be “crazy” in the eyes of the law for your actions but “too crazy” to flex your Constitutional rights to represent yourself…then something seems to be amiss.