Competency Evaluations

History of Competency Evaluations

The question of whether defendants with mental diseases or defects should be held accountable for their actions has been met with much debate.  Each state has their own laws regarding insanity, so consult local statutes for specific information.


M’Naghten Rule

First used in 1843, it must be clearly proved that at the time of the crime, the defendant was so mentally unstable as to not know the nature and quality of the act, or if it was known, then the person did not know that what they were doing was wrong.


Durham Rule

The defendant is not responsible for their actions if the actions were a result of a mental disease or mental defect.


Dusky v. United States

The United States Supreme Court determined that the trial of individuals who are so intellectually and/or psychologically impaired that they would be present within the courtroom only in body and not in mind violates the Constitution.  Defendants are competent to stand trial if they have sufficient present ability to consult with their lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, particularly understanding of the proceedings.


Brawner/American Law Institute Rule

The defendant is not responsible for their actions if, at the time of the crime, they were unable, as a result of mental disease or defect, to understand the criminality of their actions or conform their behavior to the requirements of the law.

Jackson v. Indiana

Until the 1970’s, the usual procedure for evaluating competency required the defendant to be confined within a maximum security institution for a psychiatric-psychological evaluation which usually lasted 60 – 90 days.  After the evaluation, the defendant was granted a hearing on competency.  If the court found the defendant unable to understand the charges, the judicial procedure, or was unable to communicate with their lawyers, then the defendant would be automatically committed to a secure hospital until competent (an indefinite period of time).  This usually resulted in a lifelong involuntary commitment.

In the 1972 case of Jackson v. Indiana, the Supreme Court found that such indefinite confinement violated the Constitution.  The court declared that while confinement was allowable, if no progress towards competence is made, the individual must be either released or recommitted until civil, not criminal, statutes.


Guilt but Mentally Ill

Holds that the defendant is guilty of the crime, but recognizes that their actions are a result of mental disease or defect.


The Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984

After the acquittal of John Hinckley Jr., there was a public outcry to repeal the insanity defense.  This was the compromise.

In order to qualify for insanity, the defendant must show that they have a mental disease or defect which is severe in nature.  The burden of proof was shifted from the prosecution to the defense in that it was not the defendant’s responsibility to prove with clear and convincing evidence that they were legally insane at the time of the crime.


Sell v. United States

The Supreme Court declared that in cases that did not involve violence, courts may not necessarily order defendants to take medication against their will in order to render them competent to stand trial.

However, in cases involving violent crime, the Supreme Court has refused to hear appeals concerning involuntary medication of defendants, such as in  United States v. Weston which has previously been denied.  Therefore, in cases involving serious violent crime where the government has a strong interest in bringing the defendant to trial, the Supreme Court is less than sympathetic towards the defendant’s right to refuse medication.



Berman, L. M. & Osborne, Y. H. (1987). Attorneys’ referrals for competency to stand trial evaluations: Comparisons of referred and nonreferred clients. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 5(3), 373-380.  Retrieved from

Hickey, E. W. (2010). Serial murderers and their victims. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Kalbeitzer, R. & Benedetti, R. (2009). Assessment of competency to stand trial in individuals with mental retardation. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 9(3), 237-248.  Retrieved from

Stafford, K. P. & Wygant, D. B. (2005). The role of competency to stand trail in mental health courts. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 23(2), 245-258.  Retrieved from

Presented by: Ashley DuVal

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