Competency vs. Responsibility

On January 8, 2011, a disturbed young man approached a public gathering, shot and killed six individuals and left fourteen others injured. Among the injured, and suspected prime target of the violence, was a U.S. Congresswoman who was shot point blank in the head. Five months later, Jared Lee Loughner, the accused attacker, was ruled unfit for trial.

It is a common misperception that when someone accused of committing a crime is found incompetent to stand trial, that person is not and will not be held responsible for the alleged actions, assuming they are actually guilty. Because of this misunderstanding, many law enforcement personnel become frustrated, if not irate, with the legal system. Often they feel betrayed by the courts which leads to a sense of apathy, isolation, and loss of purpose. This happens because of confusion between what it means to be competent and what it means to be responsible or guilty.
In the 1960 case of Dusky v. United States the U.S. Supreme Court held that:

It is not enough for the district judge to find that the defendant is oriented to time and place and has some recollection of events, but that the test must be whether he has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding -- and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. (Favole, 1983, p.402)

This judgment of the Court helped codify the concept of “competency” in the legal jargon, as well as the law books of the individual states. While the application of the definition of competency depends on the specific language written in the law books and the subsequent interpretation of those words, competency can be simplistically assessed by asking the following questions:

1)      Is the accused capable of understanding the nature of the charges against him?

2)      Does the accused have the ability to adequately and appropriately assist in her defense?

3)      Does the accused have the ability to assist in his defense without self-incrimination?

If, after assessing the accused, one or more trained professionals (typically a psychiatrist and a psychologist) can answer all three questions with “yes” and convince the court of this, the accused will typically be judged competent to stand trial. On the other hand, an answer of “no” to any one of these questions will likely result in the accused being judged incompetent or not competent to stand trial.

As implied in the three questions above, the accused is not being assessed for his state of mind at the time of the alleged offense, but rather at the time of proposed trial. To argue that the accused is not responsible for her actions at the time of the alleged offense due to her mental state would be to argue the individual is “not guilty by reason of insanity,” otherwise known as the “insanity defense.” Hence, the question of competency is not a question of guilt or responsibility. It is a question of due process. In our legal system, everyone is entitled to due process and in quite simple terms, due process ensures the accused a fair trial. In order for the accused to have a fair trial, he must understand what he is being charged with, be able to assist in his defense, and have the ability to not incriminate himself unless he so chooses.

Remember the saying, “innocent until proven guilty?” Many people forget the end of that saying- “…in a court of law.” It is this self-omission that further contributes to the frustration of many law enforcement personnel, as well as the general public, when an individual such as Jared Lee Loughner is found not competent to stand trial. With seemingly insurmountable and irrefutable evidence against Loughner, the court of public opinion has found him guilty and many are incensed at the recent ruling. Again, this is due to a confusion between not being able to receive due process and absolution of responsibility, or at the very minimum, justice delayed. 


 Favole, R. J. (1983). Mental disability in the American criminal process: A four issue survey. In J. Monahan & H. J. Steadman (Eds.), Mentally disordered offenders: Perspectives from law and social science (pp. 247-295). New York: Plenum.

This article is authored by Jerry D. Smith Jr., Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist and CEO at Breakthrough Psychological Solutions, PLLC.

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