What is Competency to Stand Trial?

By: Victoria Tumilty

What is Competency to Stand Trial?

Every American citizen has the right to a fair trial. This sentiment is guaranteed by the 6th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. However, if a defendant does not understand the charges or trial he or she faces, how can the trial be considered fair and constitutional? This is where the concept of competency to stand trial comes in. Establishing the competency of a defendant is the most common forensic evaluation preformed in the United States with an estimate of about 60,000 defendants being referred for assessment every year. Competency to stand trial (CST) is also commonly referred to as adjudicative competency.

Competency to stand trial requires that criminal defendants understand the nature and purpose of the legal process they face. This includes from the time of arrest to the trial proceeding itself. When it comes to understand the legal process, the defendant must be able to comprehend the charges he or she faces as well as the possibly penalties that can result if convicted. There has to additionally be some level of understanding from the defendant about courtroom procedures and the functions of

those individuals who participant in court. These individuals included the judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorney.

CST also requires that a defendant have the ability to effectively cooperate with his or her defense attorneys. When it comes to the ability to cooperate with the defense attorney, the defendant must be able to help plan a legal strategy, be able to recall and recite relevant facts and events – such as one’s motives and actions at the time of the offense – as well as be able to testify on his or her own behalf to challenge witnesses brought forth by the prosecution. Simply put, CST refers to the psychological state of a defendant at the time of the trial.

History and Landmark Case

The legal doctrine of incompetency has its origins in English Common Law. The modern concept of CST was defined by the U.S. Supreme Court Case of Dusky v. United States. The Supreme Court made it clear that it is not enough for a defendant to be oriented to the time and place of the said criminal event by recalling events. The competency test must also show sufficient present ability of the defendant to consult with his or her attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and have both a rational and factual understanding of the legal proceedings he or she faces. This ruling from the Supreme Court is referred to as the Dusky Standard. It has become the legal precedent set for establishing competency in federal courts. While CST varies state to state, they all have the elements outlines from the Dusky Standard when it comes to determining a defendant’s competency.

The Criminal Justice System and Competency

CST is a legal concept, not a psychological one. Being found competent to stand trial does not certify healthy or normal mental health functioning. People who suffer from severe mental health disorders, psychosis, or other intellectual disabilities are often judged to be competent enough to stand trial. Competency merely means that a defendant meets the elements outlined in the Dusky Standard. If a defendant does not meet these elements, then he or she will be found incompetent to stand trial.

Ethical guidelines require lawyers to inform the presiding judge if they believe that a defendant may be incompetent. In most cases, the defense lawyer raises the issue, but prosecutors and judges are also obligated to make sure a defendant is competent in order to ensure a fair trial for the defendant. Once the defendant is found competent, the information gathered during the evaluation cannot be introduced at trial, unless the defendant places his or her mental state into evidence. Cases where the defendant is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity is an example of when information from a CST evaluation can be used in a trial.

Evaluation Process

The issue of competency is typically raised at pretrial hearings, but it can be ordered by a judge or requested by either attorney at any time during the trial so long as the request is made in good faith. A mental health professional -either a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or social worker- serves as the evaluator. The evaluator will usually interview the defendant, administer psychological tests, review the defendant’s history, and then write findings up in a report for the court. The report will summarize the elevator’s findings and conclusion of competency. Typically, a report by the evaluator is

all that is required; however, a judge may ask for the psychologist or psychiatrist to testify about his or her findings at trial.

These evaluations can be conducted on either an inpatient or an outpatient basis. An inpatient evaluation involves holding the defendant in a mental institution for a period of time ranging from a few weeks to several months. This form of evaluation has the advantage of observing the defendant’s behavior over multiple timeframes. They also allow for third parties to offer information about the defendant’s behavior. For example, a prison guard, nurse, or other mental health professionals can provide insight and valuable information about the defendant’s abilities and behaviors. On the other hand, outpatient evaluations occur outside of mental institutions. They are usually conducted in jails. Outpatient evaluations are used most frequently when it comes to evaluating CST.

What happens if a defendant is found incompetent?

If a mental health professional reaches the conclusion that a defendant is incompetent to stand trial, the report typically contains recommendations for treatments that may result in restoration of competency to stand trial. Upon completion of treatment, another competency evaluation can be performed to determine if competency has been restored. If it has been restored, criminal legal proceedings will resume.





Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. A. (2018). Chapter 8: Competency to Stand Trial . In Forensic and legal psychology: Psychological science applied to law (pp. 218–244). essay, Worth Publishers.