Mentally Competent: What does it mean in criminal cases?

Currently in Oklahoma, the idea of mental competency is playing a critical role in a number of high profile cases.

  • An Oklahoma County judge ruled this week that the suspect in a beheading at a Moore food plant is competent to stand trial.
  • The attorney for a woman who drove her vehicle into a crowd at the OSU Homecoming parade says that his client is mentally ill and not competent to understand what she did or the charges against her.
  • Attorneys for death row inmate Benjamin Cole say that, although he was competent to stand trial for the child abuse murder of his infant daughter, his condition has deteriorated significantly, and he is no longer mentally competent to be executed.

So what is "mental competency," and how does it relate to criminal justice.

First, mental illness alone is not sufficient to render someone mentally incompetent to stand trial or face the penalties for a crime they committed. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one in four adults--some 61.5 million Americans--suffers from mental illness; one in 17 suffers a serious, limiting mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. 

But can a person have a serious mental illness and still be competent to stand trial?

Absolutely. Mental competency, when it comes to criminal justice, simply means that the person is capable of understanding the charges against him or her and assisting in his or her own defense. 

Mental incompetency is NOT a defense against a criminal charge. If a person is incompetent to stand trial, he or she will likely be ordered to a mental health facility. If the condition improves to the extent that the defendant becomes competent, he or she will face trial at that time.

This is different from legal insanity. Insanity is a defense, but it is an extremely difficult burden to prove. In Oklahoma, insanity is determined by the M'Naughten test--did the person know right from wrong at the time he or she committed the crime. If a person commits a crime and attempts to cover up his or her involvement, it becomes virtually impossible to use the insanity defense.

If a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity, then he or she will be sent to the state's only inpatient behavioral health facility--the Oklahoma Forensic Center, which houses both those who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and those ruled incompetent for adjudication.

Being found mentally incompetent for adjudication or not guilty by reason of insanity does not mean a person "gets away with" a crime. Rather, a serious offender will remain in the OFC as long as a judge determines that he or she is still a danger, and a person who is mentally incompetent to face the charges will remain until he or she can effectively assist in his or her own defense.

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