Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Multiple Criteria Set Competence for Trial. (in Mental Retardation)

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Multiple Criteria Set Competence for Trial. (in Mental Retardation)

Article excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO - Assessing competence to stand trial in cases of mental retardation is a complex task, and is often crucial in determining a defendant's future, according to Dr. Susan Pearlson, a psychiatrist in private practice in Rochester, Minn., and a staff member at the Minnesota State Security Hospital, St. Peter.

"Mental retardation is a very difficult condition to figure out, and there is not a lot of scientific literature about it," Dr. Pearlson said at the annual meeting of the American College of Forensic Psychiatry.

In competency cases, judges agree with the opinions of mental health professionals more than 90% of the time. Though contested hearings are rare, they're often not more than 4 minutes long, Dr. Pearlson said. "What we say about these issues is therefore very, very important," she said.

Dr. Pearlson cited a recent case she handled as an example of the complexity of evaluating competency in a mentally retarded individual. A 51-year-old retarded man with an IQ between 60 and 70 was recently arrested for sexually molesting a young boy in the bathroom of a public park. The first examiner found him not competent to stand trial and recommended commitment.

"He did not know what a lawyer was, had no understanding of courtroom procedure, and did not understand the charges against him," Dr. Pearlson said.

Yet when examined by a second psychiatrist, the man was found to be not committable. The second interviewer stressed that the man held a driver's license, could maintain a daily routine, and had a long employment history A third evaluation at the state security hospital found that the mentally retarded man had difficulty in complex situations and could grasp only fragments of what he heard. Despite being taught about courtroom procedure for several weeks, he was unable to describe the roles of courtroom participants in detail. …

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