Interviewing for Competence
Competence is important to determine because the person standing trial must be able to understand rationally what is happening to him. The defendant must be able to understand: the charges against him, be able to help with his defense, and understand the nature of possible punishment. They must know the players in the court: the lawyers, judge and jury, etc. People that may have mental illness or retardation may still be competent to stand trial. The way we determine competence is by questioning each defendant.
Now we come to the issue of insanity. This defense is based on the idea that the offender did not know what they were doing or they were incapable of controlling their actions. There are several definitions that help determine insanity. The McNaughton Rule is one that was established in 1943. It excused criminal acts if: "(1) did not know what he was doing (e.g., believed he was shooting an animal rather than a human) or (2) did not know what he was doing was wrong (e.g., believed killing unarmed
strangers was "right") (p.295-96)." There are some districts were irresistible impulse test has been included in the definition. This addition tests whether a person lacked control over their actions even if they know that their actions were wrong.
The Durham rule was established in 1954. It stated "that an accused us not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect (p.297)." At first mental health officials approved of the rule. However, due to overuse and abuse by offenders the rule was repealed and in 1972 the Brawner Rule was instituted.
The Brawner Rule established that a defendant is "not responsible for criminal conduct if he, Tat the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect, [lacks] substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality [wrongfulness] of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law (p.298)." This rule is now practiced in almost half of the U.S.
The competency case that I decided was that of Douglas D. He was a 48-year-old, unemployed African American male, that assaulted a nurse in the mental hospital in which Douglas lives. I determined that he was competent because he: understood the players in the courtroom (his lawyer is "on his side", sees judge as "head of courtroom"). He understood that he could serve jail time. He was very afraid of the possibility and wanted to ask judge "not to sentence him to jail time".
The insanity case that I determined was that of George. I determined that George was not insane by any definition. According to the DSM-III, the behavior that George's actions fit under was a "isolated, discrete episode of sudden loss of control of aggressive impulses". The DSM-III determined that this episode would be unlikely to exhibit insanity. I determined that George was an alcoholic that grew tired of his wife's nagging actions and became outraged at this final action of her throwing out his precious alcohol. I do not think that George was insane or that he was unable to control his impulses. After, 48 years of living
with his wife it would be understandable for George to leave because he nor his wife couldn't take his alcoholism, but to kill her was unacceptable.
My interviewee was defendant D and I was interviewer C. The questions that I used for competence were as follows:
1. What do you think of the justice system?
2. What do you think about the charges against you?
3. How is your lawyer coming along with the case?
4. What's your side of the story?
5. Have you told your attorney your side?
6. What would you do if you were sentenced to jail time?
7. Do you think that you were wrong in anyway?
8. What questions do you have for the witnesses?
9. Do you like to sit through long lectures or seminars?
10. Do you know what can happen to people in jail?
The questions that worked best were the ones about the justice system and his lawyer. From those questions I determined that he did understand the legal system and was compliant to work with his lawyer. He did understand the charges against him and was remorseful. He understood that he might go to jail and he was able to deal with that reality. Therefore, he was competent. Most of the questions did apply. By the time that I was through half of them I could see that he was a rational person that understood what was happening.
The questions that I used for insanity were:
1. What was happening when this crime took place?
2. What were you thinking during this time?
3. Do you think that this act hurt anyone?
4. Do you believe what you did was wrong?
5. Why or why not?
6. Why did you do this?
7. Do you ever have times when you feel out of control or unable to control your actions?
8. Do you ever hear voices?
9. Do you ever feel like someone is controlling you?
10. Do you feel remorseful for your actions?
The questions that worked the best were the questions about what was happening during the crime and then questions about his mental state. The defendant said that he didn't remember what was going on during the crime. He kept saying that he saw a UFO with a guy with 8 arms. He proceeded to say that the aliens talk to him and tell him to do things, then they take him to the hospital. I assume that he means a mental hospital because it seems he may have some underlying mental condition. He could not concentrate or pay attention to me; he kept looking about the room. I had to repeat questions. I did change some of the questions and further questioned him in the area of motivation, self-control and hallucinations. This questioning led me to
believe that the defendant was insane and required further mental evaluation.
In conducting evaluation of competency I learned that it is important to focus on the persons understanding of the legal system and understanding of the consequences of his actions. That is really what matters. Whether or not he thinks he is guilty or not guilty really doesn't enter into the decision, because all that he needs to recognize is his place in this proceeding and that of the other players in the courtroom.
In conducting a evaluation of insanity you really have to be lead more by the defendant in deciding which questions to ask. With further questioning you tend to ask more questions about various aspects of the person that standardized questioning may not uncover. By delving into the persons psyche you can better determine whether or not the person is faking a mental problem (things just might not add up) or whether they need further evaluation because they may indeed have a mental illness.