In a recent case, the appellate court looked at questions of mental competency in the case of a criminal conviction. The case arose from the defendant’s alleged stabbing and killing of an adult male. The victim, who was dying of cancer and who had been recently beaten on an earlier occasion, was discovered by a friend who occasionally checked on him.
The victim’s home was ransacked and the dresser drawer where he kept medication was toppled. The friend called the police from the nearby grocery store. The owner of the store explained that on the night of the stabbing, the defendant came into the store with a note from the victim letting him purchase beer on the arrangement between the victim and the store.
Other testimony against the defendant came from his friend and his mother. The defendant’s friend said that the defendant wanted to rob the victim in order to steal his pills. The defendant’s mother claimed that the defendant said he hurt the victim because the victim said something bad about her.
At a pretrial hearing, the defendant’s attorney mentioned he might file a request for a psychological evaluation of the defendant. The hearing was rescheduled to allow him to make a determination. Next week, he submitted a request for an evaluation for the defendant’s mental competence.
The court granted the request and asked the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) to conduct an evaluation. At a later hearing, the defense attorney again mentioned the issue of competency, explaining the defendant had a history of being admitted to psychiatric facilities.
When a DHMH doctor tried to conduct the evaluation, however, the defendant refused to talk to him. The defense attorney stated that the defendant’s refusal showed how bad his mental health problems were. The State was worried that the defendant would refuse a competency evaluation and then appeal on the grounds he wasn’t actually competent.
At another pretrial hearing, the defendant’s attorney again brought up the competency issue, but this time to withdraw his request for an evaluation at the direction of the defendant.
The trial lasted a few days before the jury came back with a guilty verdict on the first-degree murder charge. The defendant was sentenced to life in prison, some of it suspended. He appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The appellate court affirmed, so he appealed to the Court of Appeals.
Among other things, the defendant argued that he should not have been allowed to withdraw his request for a competency evaluation and whether the court should have made a competency determination. The appellate court explained that there was no argument that the defendant was not competent to stand trial. Rather, the defendant was arguing that the trial court should have made a competency determination after the defense attorney requested and withdrew his request for a competency hearing.
The appellate court explained that someone accused of a crime is presumed to be competent to stand trial. However, if a defendant appears to be incompetent to stand trial, the court is required to determine based on evidence, whether he is incompetent. “Incompetent” means that he cannot understand the nature of proceedings of assist in his defense.
In this case, the court explained that a two-part test had to be applied. First the court had look at whether the defendant was legally permitted to withdraw the request for a competency evaluation. Second, if the answer to the first question was yes, the court had to look at whether the withdrawal made the competency issue a non-issue. In this case, the defendant could legally withdraw his request.
The answer to the second question in this case was more complicated: the trial judge cannot have a bona fide doubt of competency. In this case, there was no bona fide doubt, and the court gave the defendant an opportunity to be heard on the issue of competency. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the lower courts’ decisions. The trial judge was not required to make a competency determination under the circumstances.
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