What is the Difference Between Competency and Sanity?

An area of law that is often confused is the concept of competency to stand trial versus insanity.  While these two concepts are often related, they have much different meanings in the context of a criminal case.

Competency to Stand Trial

Competency to stand trial is a very minimal standard.  A defendant is not competent to stand trial when he is unable to understand the proceedings and assist in the preparation of his defense.  If it is suspected that a defendant may not be competent to stand trial, a defense attorney will request a competency hearing.  If the judge has reasonable grounds for believing that the defendant may not be competent to stand trial, the judge will appoint two to three psychiatrists to do an assessment of the defendant.

The competency assessment focuses on whether the defendant understands the nature of the legal proceedings against him.  The psychiatrist will ask several questions aimed at getting an understanding of the defendant’s level of knowledge about the court process.  The psychiatrist wants to know if the defendant understands who the judge is, and what the role of the judge is in the case.  Similarly, the psychiatrist will ask the defendant about the prosecutor and defense attorney, and what their function is throughout the case.  Defendants are asked to describe what a plea agreement is, and what trials are.  The psychiatrist will also make sure the defendant understands the possible penalty ranges of what he or she is charged with.

The psychiatrists will each generate a report as to their opinion on the defendant’s competency.  It is important to note that the psychiatrists also look into the defendant’s social and psychiatric history. They are trained on how to spot malingering and deception, and will write in their report if they suspect the defendant is purposefully trying to be found incompetent.   After the reports are filed, a hearing will take place where both the prosecutor and defense can question the psychiatrists about their findings.  So long as a person understands the basics of the court process, they will be deemed competent to stand trial.    If a person is deemed incompetent to stand trial, they will be sent to a mental health facility until they can be restored to competence through treatment and/or medication.  After it is determined if the defendant is competent to stand trial, the next issue is commonly whether or not the defendant was insane at the time of the offense.

The Question of Sanity

Unlike the issue of competency, which is handled prior to trial, whether someone was sane at the time of the offense is ultimately a question for the judge or jury at the trial itself.  In order to prevail on the insanity defense, the defense must prove that A) The defendant was suffering from a mental illness at the time of the crime, AND B) Because of that mental illness, the defendant could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct at the time of the crime.

Often, the same psychiatrists that evaluate the defendant’s competency also assess the sanity issue.  It is very common for both reports to be done simultaneously.  The psychiatrists will again examine the defendant’s social, medical, and psychiatric history.  They will also review the probable cause affidavit and other relevant evidence in the case.  There will be a clinical interview with the defendant in which the psychiatrists will ask the defendant about their version of the offense.  Additional interviews are conducted with the defendant’s family members or any civilians that were with the defendant at or near the time of the offense.   The psychiatrists will then put forth their opinion as to whether the defendant was sane or insane.   At trial, the psychiatrists are called by the court and are questioned by the judge, as well as the prosecutor and defense attorney.  The fact finder, either the judge or jury, is free to accept or reject the testimony of the psychiatrists.  Ultimately, it is up to the judge or jury to decide whether the defendant was insane or not and whether they should be held responsible for their actions.

It is crucial to have an experienced attorney on your side that knows how to navigate competency and insanity issues.  If you or someone you know is facing charges where these elements are at issue, contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys in Indianapolis at Banks & Brower, LLC.  We are available at all times by calling us at (317) 870-0019, or by emailing info@banksbrower.com.