The “competency” paradigm permeates the law. An individual must be “competent” to enter a contract; otherwise, that contract may be void. A will written by an individual lacking the “competency” to write it may not be admitted to probate. An individual must be “competent” to consent to medical treatment. And, as discussed in this chapter, the state maynot subject an “incompetent” individual to trial on criminal charges. In each of these situations, the law seeks to implement a basic premise: that only the acts of an autonomous individual are to be recognized by society. In doing so, the law attempts to reaffirm the integrity of the individual as well as the interests of society at large.
The legal standard
This section examines thehistorical basis and rationale fro the competency test and its most common modern formulations. It also addresses two issues that routinely complicate the competency determination: the extent to which either amnesia or antipsychotic medication might affect a defendant’s competency.
a) Historic antecedents
The rule an individual must be competent to undergo the criminal process originated in the commonlaw and has been traced at least to the 17th century. In those days, as is true today, the defendant was required to plead to the charge prior to trial. Some commentators believe that the concept of competency first arose as a reaction by the English courts to defendants who, rather than making the required plea, stood mute. In such a case, the defendant was “mute of malice” or “mute byvisitation of God.” If the individual fell into the first category, the court sought to force a plea by ordering increasingly heavier weights to be placed upon the individual’s chest. If the individual fell into the latter category, he or she was spared this ordeal. The category” mute by visitation from God” initially included the literally deaf and mute but over time was expanded to include the “lunatic.Early American courts, which relied heavily on English common law, also recognized the incompetency plea. In 1835, for instance, the man who attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson was declared unfit to sand trial. In 1899, a federal court of appeals went so far as to give the competency doctrine constitutional status; the court held it to be “fundamental that an insane person canneither plead to an arraignment, be subjected to a trial, or, after trial, receive judgment, or, after judgment, undergo punishment; to the same effect are all the common-law authorities…. It is not ‘due process of law’ to subject an insane person to trial upon an indictment involving liberty or life.” Since that time, the United States Supreme Court has on several occasions stated that the right ofan incompetent defendant to avoid trial is “fundamental to an adversary system of justice.”
A second rationale for the competency requirement focuses not on the individual’s rights but on society’s interests. The defendant must be competent not only to ensure fair results cur also to guarantee a dignified criminal process. As one commentator has observed, “The adversary form of the criminalproceeding necessarily rests on the assumption that the defendant will be a conscious and intelligent participant; the trial of a defendant will be a conscious and intelligent participant; the trail of a defendant who cannot fulfill this expectation appears inappropriate and irrational.” Even a proceeding that produces an accurate guilty verdict would be repugnant to our moral sense if the convictedindividual were unaware of what was happening or why. As later discussion develops, this latter rationale for the competency requirement is important, as it seems to underlie many of the substantive and procedural aspects of competency doctrine.
b) The competency test
In Dusky v. United States the United States Supreme Court ser forth a definition of competency to stand trial that has since...