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Jared Lee Loughner isn’t competent to stand trial on charges that he killed six people and tried to assassinate a member of Congress in a Jan. 8 shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona, a judge ruled.

Bloomberg: “Jared Loughner Found Incompetent to Stand Trial for Arizona Shooting Spree” by A.J. Flick and Edvard Pettersson, May 26, 2011

What does it mean to be “competent to stand trial”?

Competency to stand trial is a concept of jurisprudence allowing the postponement of criminal proceedings for those defendants who are considered unable to participate in their defense on account of mental or physical disorder. It has been estimated that between 25,000 and 39,000 competency evaluations are conducted in the United States annually. That is, between 2% and 8% of all felony defendants are referred for competency evaluations. (Court Review: “Mental Competency Evaluations: Guidelines for Judges and Attorneys” by Patricia A. Zapf and Ronald Roesch, Summer 2000, pp. 28-35, PDF)

Why is Loughner not competent to stand trial and how do they come to this conclusion?

Loughner has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by two experts who examined him, Burns said.
A 52-page evaluation by psychologist Christina Pietz and a 43-page evaluation by psychiatrist Matthew Carroll both concluded that Loughner isn’t fit for trial because he cannot assist in his defense due to mental illness. Both evaluations were recorded, but they weren’t shown in court. (CNN: “Judge rules Loughner not competent to stand trial” by Michael Martinez and Ted Rowlands, May 26, 2011)

What are the consequences? What will happen to him?

The U.S. attorney general will take custody of Loughner for a period not to exceed four months, during which he will be taken to a hospital for further evaluation to determine if he will become competent to stand trial. Prosecutors said Loughner could be readied for competency through proper medication, and this practice has proved successful in other cases.
The next court date for Loughner is scheduled for September 21. He has pleaded not guilty to the 49 charges he faces, including murder and attempted murder, related to the January 8 mass shooting in a grocery store parking lot in Tucson. (CNN, as quoted above)

What are the chances that he remains in a psychiatric institution for the rest of his life?

If Loughner is deemed incompetent, he would be committed to a mental hospital and a trial delayed until his competency is restored.
A finding of incompetence is uncommon, and when it happens, the competency of most defendants is usually restored with treatment that often involves drugs, Professor Golding says. (The Christian Science Monitor: “Jared Loughner: How to tell if shooting suspect is fit to stand trial?” by Lourdes Medrano, May 25, 2011)

More details about yesterday’s hearing by The Associated Press:

For more about the “comptency evaluation” see Wikipedia: “Competency evaluation (law)”
[UPDATE – September 29, 2011] As of September 28, some media improperly suggested that Loughner was “ruled mentally fit for trial” (see for example The Daily Beast). That’s incorrect. What happened yesterday is that a federal judge heard various experts testifying that the mental state of Loughner, through forced medication, has improved. In light of those testimonies, the judge ruled that Loughner could probably be made mentally fit to stand trial:

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns on Wednesday extended Jared Lee Loughner’s detention for four more months, saying that “measurable progress has been made” in restoring him to competency. Loughner has been at a prison facility in Missouri the last four months after Burns found him mentally unfit for trial. Experts have concluded Loughner suffers from schizophrenia, and prosecutors contend Loughner can be made competent with more mental health treatment. But Loughner’s attorneys argue prosecutors have failed to prove that it’s probable his condition will improve enough. (Associated Press via The Washington Post: “Judge rules it’s probable Tucson shooting rampage suspect can be made mentally fit for trial”, September 28, 2011. © 2001 AP)

[UPDATE – June 27, 2011]

[UPDATE – June 11, 2011]

  • Associated Press: “Loughner lawyer says she can’t provide discovery”, June 7, 2011:

    TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The Tucson shooting rampage suspect’s lawyer says she’s unable to provide discovery requested by prosecutors until her client is declared competent to stand trial. In a Monday filing, defense attorney Judy Clark says the court’s finding that Jared Lee Loughner is incompetent to stand trial makes it clear that she “cannot have rational or meaningful communication” with him.

    What’s a “discovery” in legal term?

    Discovery is a fact-finding process that takes place after a lawsuit has been filed and before trial in the matter, in order to allow the parties in the case to prepare for settlement or trial. It is based upon the belief that a free exchange of information is more likely to help uncover the truth regarding the facts in issue. Court rules and state rules of evidence govern the discovery procedure. (USLegal.com, see also Wikipedia)

  • The Associated press (via Boston.com): “Loughner’s lawyers keep up fight over drugs”, June 10, 2011:

    Attorneys need notice if Loughner is given psychotropic drugs to decide whether to take action to protect his rights, Clarke said. “Because of the pervasive nature of Mr. Loughner’s illness and its severe impact on his rational understanding and ability to communicate, counsel resolved that making a basic and straightforward request of the court for notice was appropriate and needed no further justification,” she wrote. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns denied a similar request June 2, saying he’s confident that staff at a federal prison facility in Springfield, Mo., knows Loughner may not be forcibly medicated without Burns’ authorization.

[UPDATE – May 27, 2011]

  • Slate.com: “Too crazy for court” by Jeremy Singer-Vine, May 26, 2011:
  • If Loughner refuses to take the drugs—which have quite a few severe side effects, such as muscle spasms and blurred vision—the government could try to force the issue. One way would be to show that an unmedicated Loughner is a safety risk to himself or other inmates. […]

    Why does Loughner get four months to regain competency? Because that’s about how long it takes for the drugs to improve psychotic symptoms. A bit more time might be useful: Studies find that around 75 percent of incompetent defendants are restored to competency within six months, but initial treatment periods in federal cases are limited by the U.S. Code to four.

  • Associated Press via The Washington Post: “Experts predict anti-psychotic drugs will primary treatment for Ariz. shooting spree suspect”, May 26, 2011:
  • Christopher Slobogin, an expert in criminal and mental health law at Vanderbilt University Law School, said anti-psychotic drugs are effective in restoring mental competency in at least three-fourths of cases.

    “The bottom line is that he probably wouldn’t have a right to refuse,” said Slobogin, a co-author of the book “Psychological Evaluations For The Courts.”

  • From PBS NewsHour the video “Shooting Rampage Suspect Loughner Ruled Mentally Unfit to Stand Trial”, aired on May26, 2011. Full transcript available as well.


Previously on Aphelis: Jared Lee Loughner, “Insanity” as a legal term in the United-States

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