What is incompetence to proceed?

Robert Dunn’s attorney has filed a motion to determine if his client is competent to proceed with the remainder of his 1st Degree Murder trial.  There’s always a lot of confusion about what incompetence means, so I wanted to do an informative post about it.

First, keep in mind that incompetence is not the same as insanity.  Competence has to do with whether or not a defendant is presently able to stand trial.  Insanity generally deals with their mental state at an earlier time: at the time the crime occurred.  The insanity defense argues that the defendant was so crazy at the time of the offense that they could tell right from wrong, basically.  It is actually pretty rare, in spite of hearing about it all the time in movies, because the level of insanity has to be very high, and it is an affirmative defense: that is, the Defense has to prove the defendant was insane.

When someone is incompetent to stand trial, they are not currently able to be tried due to their mental state.  This usually is related to their sanity, but can also be due other mental incapacities, such as learning disability, Alzheimer’s disease, or brain injury.  The Florida Eleventh Circuit has a handy breakdown on their website.  Defendants should be found incompetent if they do not:

  • understand the charges/allegations against them
  • comprehend the possible penalties
  • understand the adversary nature of the legal process
  • have the ability to disclose to an attorney pertinent facts that would aid in their defense
  • exhibit appropriate courtroom behavior
  • have the ability to testify relevantly

When an issue regarding competency arises, such as a defendant starts acting irrationally, or fails to continue communicating with their attorney, it is the attorney’s duty to address the issue with the court.  They do so by filing a motion, specifically stating their reasons for their concern.  Then it becomes the duty of the judge to order that the Defendant be evaluated, by up to 3 experts, who will then report back to the court to determine if the Defendant can stand trial, or continue with trial if it is already underway, as in the case of Robert Dunn.

If they are found incompetent, the judge will commit them to a facility for treatment if the Defendant is not suitable to be treated in the community.  The treatment will actually attempt to restore their competency if possible, at which point they will be brought back to court to conduct a trial.  They must be subject to continuing review to determine if they must remain committed, or to see if the case can return to court to be resolved (by trial or other resolution).

The court is hoping to have the expert reports by Monday to determine if the trial will be able to proceed.  If he is found competent, he could finish the trial, or enter a plea, as he has indicated is his desire.  If he is found to be incompetent, he would almost certainly be committed.  Additionally, the judge may not be convinced if the experts are not in agreement, and it’s possible a third evaluation could be ordered.  #robertdunn

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