What is a Competency Evaluation?

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  • Written By: Dale Marshall
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 03 February 2020
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A competency evaluation, in the American system of criminal justice, is an appraisal of a defendant’s ability to understand the charges against him and to consult with his attorney in defending against those charges. In addition, those sentenced to death, or their counsel, may petition for a competency evaluation to determine if they understand why they’ve received such a sentence and what it means. The concept that a defendant must be mentally competent in order to be tried was established in British common law as early as 1736, but was always open to interpretation.

In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the issue in its decision in Dusky v. United States, establishing that a defendant must have a rational understanding of the charges against him and be capable of consulting with his lawyer. The ruling also affirmed the right of a defendant to a competency evaluation before proceeding to trial. The Court’s creation of these standards led to statutory provisions in all 50 states providing for competency evaluations.


In some cases, the evaluation is made by the case judge, based on pre-trial interviews and appraisals of the defendant’s mental status. There also exist standardized assessments that can be administered to defendants. Alternately, either side, or the judge, may call for a competency evaluation at any time during the proceedings. Medical and mental health professionals may interview and test the defendant, but the ultimate determination of competency is made by the judge. In addition, a defendant’s competence for other purposes, such as pleading guilty or waiving the right to counsel, is not subject to any higher standard than that used in evaluating his competence to stand trial.

Establishing a defendant’s competence is critical to the successful prosecution of a case. If a defendant is found not to be competent, he cannot stand trial. Such defendants are sometimes civilly committed to a mental health facility, but if that's not possible, they’re released. In addition, if a defendant is convicted and it’s subsequently determined that he was denied a competency evaluation, the conviction most likely will be overturned without any opportunity to re-try the defendant.

The possibility of avoiding trial altogether has prompted some defendants to feign incompetence. This issue was addressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in 2005, in the case of United States v Binion. The psychologist conducting the competency evaluation concluded the defendant was malingering, and an additional charge of obstruction of justice was brought. The defendant pleaded guilty and then appealed, but the obstruction conviction was upheld.

Capital punishment is one area where the requirement of competence is controversial. The Supreme Court has upheld a long-standing tenet of common law that the insane cannot be executed; the issue was addressed in the 1986 case Ford v. Wainwright. When convicts awaiting execution are evaluated as incompetent to be executed, efforts are undertaken, often including psychiatric drugs, to bring them to an acceptable level of competence. This also poses an ethical and moral dilemma for the mental health professionals charged with improving the competence of those scheduled to be put to death.

Defendants’ competence is an area of the law that’s being continually explored and clarified as we become more familiar with the diseases and malfunctions of the human mind. Where competency evaluations once meant that the defendant most likely wouldn’t be brought to trial, a failed murder-suicide in 1989 in Connecticut led to the modification of this standard. The defendant was accused of murdering his girlfriend and botching his own suicide attempt. A competency evaluation determined that he couldn’t stand trial due to brain damage resulting from the suicide attempt; years later, he was discovered attending college and earning good grades. The defendant was arrested and given a new competency evaluation, which determined that he met competence standards, and in 1999 he pleaded guilty to manslaughter.


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