Sample Research Paper on Incompetence in Trial: Questions 1, 2 and 3

Question 1: Dusky v. United States

The case of Dusky v. United States (1960) is considered to be one of the landmark cases in the establishment of incompetency as a criminal defense. The case came at a time when legal rulings were made majorly based on the defense provided by the suspect. This was prior to the establishment of the right to legal representation and suspected criminals mainly sourced for their own defense attorneys. This implied that the defense provided by the defendant, regardless of their mental status, was the determining factor behind their success or failure in the court of law. Dusky’s case formed a strong precedence on the subject of legal incompetence as it brought a new perspective based on the ruling of the court. It was ruled that the defendant had to be evaluated for competence to stand in his own defense. Individuals deemed incompetent to defend themselves would not be subjected to trial. Furthermore, the basis of competence was also to consider the capacity of the accused to interact with their counsel and to help the counsel during the pre-trial motions and the trial itself. The counsel in this case would be best placed to determine whether their client could be of assistance or not. Another measure of competence as set by Dusky’s case is that the accused must have factual and rational comprehension of the proceedings he/she is to be subjected to. Inability to understand proceedings could disadvantageously place defendants leading to outcomes such as waiver of their rights.

The precedence led to the establishment of the standards of incompetence determination based on mental capacity. From thence, mental instability, signified through behavioral indicia was used as a starting point for the evaluation of suspects who appear to be incompetent to face trial. The case proved to be a landmark case as it not only exempted the incompetent from defending themselves but also indemnified them on grounds that they could not be of valuable assistance to their counsels. According to Morse (2011), this was a strong starting point for the incompetence defense although many legal concerns were not addressed in the case. The standards of competency as based on the elements outlined through Dusky’s case, have been used without any alterations for juvenile cases across all states through the years.

The case further led to the development of various components for consideration in determining the defendant’s comprehension of the proceedings. Fortunati et al. (2006) report that for the defendants to be considered informed of the proceedings, they must demonstrate an understanding of their charges and the implications of being found liable for those charges; they must also comprehend the distinctive roles of each of the players in the court and be aware of their own rights albeit in basics. This may however not be enough for the accused to stand trial as competent individuals. They should be capable of maintaining crucial discussions on various aspects of the proceedings with their attorney. In most cases, only individuals with mental conditions such as schizophrenia are rationally challenged and incapable of making decisions that would help them to defend themselves satisfactorily. In these instances, Dusky’s case provided a precedence in which the defendants would be placed under the care of a mental institution. Alternatively, the inability to make rational decisions could be due to immaturity as evidenced in cases involving juveniles. Fortunati et al. (2006) report that such cases are treated by placing the juveniles under care until restored to be capable of undergoing trial.

While the judgment in Dusky v. United States was crucial in bringing forth the measures of competency in trial, it left open various key aspects in relation to incompetency. For instance, the judgment led to the establishment of standards based on ability to participate in the trial process through assisting the attorney and also comprehending the court proceedings yet it does not give provisions on what to do with those considered incompetent. The lack of guidelines on the duration of confinement and the status of criminal charges during confinement by virtue of incompetence brought about many dilemmas in the later years. Furthermore, the case did not provide precedence on addressing the manner in which individuals under confinement were to be treated.

Morse (2011) reported that this lack of clarity led to some individuals being confined unjustly, for periods exceeding the maximum probable sentences for their charges without any hope of treatment. It was until later that it was established that individuals were to be subjected to civil commitment for six months following the initial confinement. Dusky v. United States also failed to address the potential challenge that would arise in determining the court’s course of action following the confinement. In case an individual who had been confined was to be deemed fit for trial, would they be subjected to the same rigorous trial proceedings and sentenced to the duration befitting the charges or would the courts count the confinement as part of the rehabilitative practices for the crimes committed.



Question 2: Insanity Defense

The insanity defense has been used significantly across the years to explain the absence of criminal responsibility in the case where the perpetrator is mentally challenged. Morse (2011) asserts that while the insanity defense may hold in various situations, it is first necessary to establish the level of criminalresponsibility in the prevailing case. This is accomplished through consideration of criminal responsibility and competence as two separate conceptsin trial. Establishment of criminal responsibility comes prior to the demand for and confirmation of the competence of the accused. Criminal responsibility is determined across different states through the use of general conditions including free will, causation and prediction of outcome. In terms of free will, the accused must have acted during the offense as a free individual acting based on their own mind. They should not have been under coercion by any third party. One can only be held criminally liable for their actions when they have acted in their own right mind. Besides, their actions must have resulted in the criminal behavior through a causation effect. In this case, they cannot use causation as the excuse to commit a crime but when the causation is based on compulsion, this can be considered as an excuse. Furthermore, the results of the actions could have been predictable either through identification of potential criminal charges or through prediction of potential harmcaused to the victim andcan be used as evidence for criminal responsibility in the courts.

The establishment of criminal responsibility can be challenging when the perpetrator is observed to be probably incompetent to answer to charges against them. In such cases, even creating case files becomes aproblem. The federal laws provide that individuals can be deemed incompetent to answer to charges at any time during the case progression. Mental illness is one of the main reasons that could result in the confirmation of defendant’s incompetence. In most cases, suspicion of mental illness arises due to the defendant’s behavioral characteristics such as actions, moods, feelings, thoughts and perceptions. The behaviors of the mentally ill individuals probably form the basis for consideration of criminal responsibility. For instance, the mentally ill are less likely to act out of free will due to experiences such as hallucinations and paranoia, which may at times lead to compulsion as one of the causes of their activities. Other evidences established for confirming incompetence include waiving of rights and tests carried out to provide forensic evidence of the same. According to Morse (2011), individuals who have committed no crimes yet are mentally impaired may at times give false testimonies about themselves simply because they heard voices pushing them to do so. This happens among juveniles as well as among adults.

According to the laws on insanity defense, incompetence of the defendant becomes an absolute stoppage to the trial process. Once suspected of being incompetent, the judge holds the responsibility of ordering that the suspect be evaluated through a forensic hospital. Confirmation of the incompetent status of the criminal leads to their commitment to psychiatric units for restoration. This should take as long as the individual needs to become sufficiently competent to participate in the trial process. The present provisions for civil commitment require that the duration under which an incompetent defendant is placed under confinement should be reasonable and within the constraints of the confinement purpose. This means that individuals should not be kept in confinement for periods beyond the established maximum sentences for their purported crimes.

Furthermore, individuals under confinement due to incompetency reasons should be considered innocent until such a time when they would be competent to face trial. However, others may be found to be irreversibly incompetent in spite of psychotic treatments. In such cases, those individuals are to be released from confinement within a reasonable period. This is because confinement places individuals in a state considered to be somewhat similar to a limbo where they are unaware of their criminal status. The court says they are yet to be sentenced while the personal records indicate that they are still under confinement. This limits their personal liberties without due reason. As the individuals remain in confinement under civil commitment, they should still be allowed to undertake pre-trial adjudications as they are still considered innocent and encouraged to undertake any pre-trial motions that have the potential of halting the trial procedures.

Melton (1997) reported that the law makes it mandatory for the accused to undergo competency evaluations to avoid instances where the incompetent are tried as competent individuals. In case this happens, Melton (1997) argues that defendants may not be tried fairly due to the high probability for error commitment. For instance, such individuals, upon prompting by the voices they believe they hear, may confess to crimes they did not commit resulting in unfair outcomes. Alternatively, they may also receive fair treatment during trial, which has the potential of being detrimental to them as they fail to use their deserved insanity defense and thus may be sentenced unfairly.


Question 3: Involuntary Psychotic Medication

The question of involuntary psychotic medication for incompetent offenders was explored through the case of Sell v. United States. This case also became a landmark case in the proceedings relating to incompetent individuals due to the changes experienced in law subsequent to its decision. According to Morse (2011), the law prohibits involuntary psychotic medication unless under very rarecircumstances. This makes the cases which end in involuntary medication to be minimal and also well researched. According to the law, individuals deemed to be incompetent can only be subjected to involuntary medication for competence restoration when four conditions are satisfied. The first condition is that the interests of the state must be at risk due to the crimes of the defendant and only bringing them to trial can offer restitution to the condition at hand. In most cases, the crimes that attract such kind of attention relate to the national security i.e. through practices such as terrorism.  In the case outlined, the offender had only committed minor offenses in the locality. There is no possibility that such offenses could have resulted in a threat to government interests.

The second condition to be satisfied is that the medication used must not have negative side effects that may interfere with the defense. This requires evaluation based on the psychiatrist’s recommendation. The medication administered under civil commitment must also be the only alternative to improving the competence of the offender. This means that the accused has to be evaluated through forensic procedures to determine the kind of mental challenges that result in their incompetency. In case the challenges recognized depend solely on medication for restitution, then the accused could have been subjected to the involuntary medication. The medication should also be established to be appropriate for the kind of mental illness that the accused is going through. Based on these conditions, it becomes clear that the accused in the outlined case should not have been subjected to the involuntary psychotic medication he was made to take. As such, the court rulings would have been against forced medication unless proven that the accused was also a threat to themselves and to others within their societies. Without evidence of this, involuntary psychotic medication is unwarranted and a wrong direction for the courts to have taken.

The defendant could have been taken through the procedures of civil commitment for up to six months as outlined in the case of Jackson v. Indiana, it was established that individuals deemed to be incompetent to stand trial were to undergo civil confinement in mental health facilities as provided for by the previous cases including Dusky v. United States. This confinement may however be valid only until the accused is competent to stand trial or for those who are irreversibly incompetent, until the duration of confinement exceeds the conventional sentence for the crimes committed. Morris and Parker (2009) reported that confining people for such prolonged periods could be synonymous to life imprisonment. Furthermore, such prolonged confinement would go contrary to the requirements of the 14thamendment which asserts that confinement is similar to curtailment of liberty. In the outlined case, the most viable able course of action would have been to confine the offender to civil commitment and only return to trial once proven competent unless tests indicate that the incompetence is permanent. In such a case, the accused would be confined to civil commitment for six months and let to go. This could have come with dropped charges as exemplified in the case of Indiana v. Davis where it was established that individuals suffering from permanent incompetence could not be held under criminal liability indefinitely. Melton (1997) argues that failure to dismiss charges could result in life time confinement without the opportunity to be treated for their conditions and also with limited privileges due to the curtailed liberty. Such would not be fair to the accused as they probably acted out of compulsion and not within their own free will.

Consideration of the application of the insanity defense to the case may also have been viable in the case under consideration. In essence, the accused ought to have been given an opportunity to engage in the pretrial motions. The main objective would be to find loop holes through which the trials could be halted and the accused let out of confinement. Through defense attorneys, it may be possible for the accused to use the insanity defense satisfactorily as a way of getting out of the confinement. Evidence of involuntary actions such as waiver of rights in spite of being aware of them, can make the accused to be considered mentally ill and thus without control of his actions. In this way, the accused lacks criminal responsibility for his actions and the trials could be halted. In can thus be said that all the alternative paths to the case are bound to have challenges and possess features of unfair trial potential. The involuntary medication goes against ethical and legal principles; confinement also violates the fundamental fairness and liberty rights while the use of the insanity defense requires greater proof which will eventually still leave the defendant under confinement for a certain period.



Fortunati, F., Morgan, C.A., Temporini, H., Southwick, S., Coric, V.,& Feuerstein, S. (2006). Juveniles and Competency to Stand Trial. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 3(3): 35- 38.

Melton, G. (1997). Psychological Evaluations for the Courts: A Handbook for Mental Health Professionals and Lawyers 2nd Ed. New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 130–131.

Morris, D.,& Parker, G. (2009). Indiana v. Davis: Revisiting Due Process Rights of Permanently Incompetent Defendants. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 37(3): 380- 385.

Morse, S.J. (2011). Mental Disorder and Criminal Law. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 101(3): 885- 968.