A closer look at mental competency for trial

Recent kidnap case involves process of testing a defendant’s ability to understand a trial

nwilson@thetribunenews.comAugust 17, 2011 

In a recent San Luis Obispo Superior Court hearing, alleged kidnapper Annette Hale told a judge she was a CIA agent who snatched up a 4-year-old boy in Atascadero because his mother wasn’t the real mom.

The statements that Hale made led her attorney to request an evaluation to determine whether she is mentally fit to stand trial.

That examination, called a mental-competency evaluation, determines whether people accused of crimes understand the court process and whether they could assist their attorney in their own defense.

Mental-competency hearings are different from pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity, which question whether defendants knew what they were doing when the crime occurred and whether they understood it was wrong.

Two local mental health doctors — David Fennell and Carolyn Murphy — are frequent participants in the process of determining the mental competency of criminal defendants.

Their job requires them to follow section 1370 of the California Penal Code, which forbids defendants from being tried unless they’re fit to stand trial.

Fennell, an Atascadero State Hospital forensic psychiatrist, and Murphy, an independent psychologist, are expected to report their results on Hale by Aug. 31.

If they disagree, a third doctor could be called upon to evaluate the 52-year-old woman.

Looking for awareness

The doctors ask questions and review court documents that help them understand if a defendant is aware of his or her situation and has the ability to make key decisions about the case.

Their questions typically probe whether defendents know what they’re charged with and the roles of judge, jury and attorneys.

“We’re making sure people fully understand what’s going on in court and if they’re aware of their rights,” Murphy said. “You have to know if they understand what it means to go to trial or take a plea bargain.”

Murphy estimates she conducts about 70 mental competency examinations in a year. Fennell, who’s employed full time at ASH, said he conducts hundreds of examinations each year.

The doctors’ work includes reviewing reports that may show previous mental health treatment, as well as police accounts of the alleged crime, and meeting with the defendant.

“About 90 percent of those found incompetent are unable to cooperate rationally with their attorney,” Fennell said.

And about 10 to 20 percent of defendants are pretending to suffer a mental illness to avoid facing criminal charges, Fennell said. Murphy agreed.

Facing trial

The majority of defendants are restored to competency after being treated for mental illness, typically with medication. Such defendants even go through mock trials arranged at mental health hospitals before they’re sent back to court, Fennell said.

In San Luis Obispo County cases, men charged with felonies are treated at ASH to restore them to competency; women are sent to Patton State Hospital near Riverside.

Fennell said that a few local defendants, including one man with severe Alzheimer’s, have remained permanently incapable of understanding their court proceedings.

Public defender Matthew Guerrero estimates that about 25 percent of his clients have some form of mental illness, but most are fit to stand trial. He declares doubt of competency for only about 1 percent.

“Sometimes my client doesn’t seem to be tracking the conversation or they’re unable to cooperate,” Guerrero said.

But in cases such as that of Guerrero’s client Andrew Downs, a schizophrenic accused of a double homicide in Atascadero last Christmas Day, a defendant can still face charges.

Downs was found competent after three doctors examined him. Guerrero now has filed a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, and the case is set for trial in January.

Guerrero said that “a root of criminal behavior often can be mental illness, and understanding what’s going on will help prevent recidivism.”

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service