Competency Is Not All or Nothing

By Metzner, Jeffrey L. | Clinical Psychiatry News, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Competency Is Not All or Nothing


Metzner, Jeffrey L., Clinical Psychiatry News


Ahmad Edwards had a serious mental disorder with psychotic features. After shoplifting in downtown Indianapolis and being chased, he fired three gunshots, injuring two people. An FBI agent apprehended Edwards after making several requests that he drop his weapon. The date was July 12, 1999.

Originally, Edwards was found incompetent to stand trial. But several years later, he was restored to competency and stood trial in Indiana state court--with counsel representing him. A jury convicted him of criminal recklessness and theft but hung on attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon.

When the retrial on the attempted murder and criminal recklessness charges was set, Edwards sought to represent himself. But the trial judge said no, concluding that Edwards was not competent to represent himself--although he was competent to stand trial with representation. A jury convicted Edwards of attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon.

Edwards appealed the conviction on the grounds that his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation at his second trial had been denied. The Indiana Supreme Court held that the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Godinez v. Moran barred a state from finding a criminal defendant competent to stand trial but not to represent himself, where a voluntary and intelligent waiver of the right to representation is found. Indiana's high court reversed the convictions for attempted murder and battery and remanded the case.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a review in the Ahmad Edwards case, and the following question came before the court: "May states adopt a higher standard for competency to represent oneself at trial than for measuring competency to stand trial?"

For the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, the answer is yes. Both organizations have submitted an amicus brief spelling out their positions (see www.psych.org/MainMenu/EducationCareerDevelopment/Library.aspx).

Our brief supports the idea that a state can legitimately preclude a criminal defendant from representing himself even after finding the defendant competent to stand trial if represented by an attorney. The competency-to-stand-trial standard is based on the 1960 Dusky v. United States decision, which requires that the defendant have "sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" (so as to provide information that counsel might find necessary to make the adversarial process function) and "a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. …

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