On January 8, 2011, a lone gunman opened fire on the crowd attending a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson, Arizona. Six people were killed, including John Roll, the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was among the fourteen people injured in the shooting. Representative Giffords suffered a gunshot wound to the head and serious brain injury. After a remarkable but certainly not complete recovery, she resigned her Congressional seat on January 25, 2012, in order to devote herself to her rehabilitation.
Is Giffords’ assailant competent to stand trial for murder? Moreover, is he criminally responsible for his actions?
Jared Lee Loughner, a 23-year-old with a history of bizarre behavior and substance abuse, was indicted on 49 criminal charges in connection with the shootings. The case has not yet gone to trial, and many people wonder why. Delays are not unusual in criminal cases. They are especially common in high-profile cases like this, where there is evidence of significant mental illness on the part of the defendant.
As of early February 2012, Mr. Loughner had been found incompetent to stand trial and was confined to a forensic hospital—in an effort to restore him to competency through treatment. Until a judge determines that he is competent to stand trial, the issue of his guilt or innocence cannot be addressed.
In U.S. courts, “competency to stand trial” (CTST) means that the defendant has to be able to cooperate with his attorney and has to understand that he is charged with a crime, the nature of the crime, the trial process and the roles of the various participants in the trial (e.g. the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and jury). A key question when forensic psychiatrists and psychologists assess CTST is whether the defendant truly lacks the ability to cooperate with his attorney or is faking the inability in order to delay trial.
Many people wonder why we have such a system. Why not just take the person to trial, even if he can’t (or won’t) be able to participate? The answer: to do so would defeat the purposes of the criminal justice system and would violate its underlying principals of fairness.
Making sure that the defendant is competent to stand trial does several things. First, it helps to insure that the proceedings are accurate, as the defendant arguably has the best information about the alleged events, including his own behavior. Second, it helps to guarantee a fair trial by making sure that inaccurate information is challenged. This includes the defendant being able to confront witnesses against him, a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Third, the integrity and dignity of the legal process would be damaged by trying someone who is unaware of his surroundings or the true nature of the trial process damages. Finally, two of the goals of the criminal justice system are retribution (punishing a person who deserves to be punished and knows why) and deterring the guilty person from committing the same criminal act. If the defendant is incompetent to stand trial, he will not understand why he is being punished or what he should not do again, and that would defeat both of these goals.
Contrary to the concerns of many, the CTST process does not prevent many people from going to trial. The standard for CTST is quite low– I have been involved in cases where the defendant has been severely mentally ill but the judge ruled that he was CTST.
What can we expect in Mr. Loughner’s case? First, if he refuses treatment, the court will have to decide if he can be forced to take medication to help restore his CTST. With or without treatment, the judge will reassess him periodically to determine if he is competent and can proceed to trial. When and if he is found competent, it is likely that an insanity defense will be used, raising important and often emotional issues regarding criminal responsibility.