Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Art of Forensic Psychology

Competency Examinations

Andrea Yates
Andrea Yates

On August 8, 2001, the attorneys for Andrea Yates entered an insanity defense.    A rudimentary psychological report done for the court indicated that she was competent to stand trial, but her attorneys wanted a jury to make that determination, since their own psychiatrists had concluded that she was not.  In other words, they had decided that she was not able to participate in her own defense with a reasonable degree of rational understanding of the court proceedings.  The judge granted their request and in Breaking Point, Suzy Spencer gives a comprehensive account of this proceeding.

Book cover: Breaking Point
Breaking Point, by Suzy

Dr. Gerald Harris, a clinical psychologist, had interviewed Andrea in prison, where she had shown signs of severe psychosis.  She said she had seen Satan in her cell talking to her, she asked to have her hair cut into the shape of a crown and she believed the number of the Antichrist, 666, was imprinted on her scalp.  By the end of August, medication had restored normal awareness, but she still had delusions about Satan and had difficulty remembering things--an important issue for competency.  Other doctor testified about her severe depression, and while two experts were divided on the competency issue, both recognized authentic psychosis in Yates's condition.  Despite all of this, the jury deemed Yates competent to stand trial.

Legal competence occurs in a variety of contexts and the procedures for a competency assessment may be requested for both criminal and civil cases.  Most often, we hear about competency to stand trial--whether or not a defendant understands the legal process and can contribute to his or her defense.  However, there are other competencies relevant to the criminal process: competency to waive one's Miranda rights (right to silence and to legal counsel), to confess, to understand the nature of the crime committed, to testify, to refuse an insanity defense, and even competency to be executed.  In a case relevant to that issue, Charles Singleton murdered a sixty-two year-old store owner in 1979 and was given the death sentence.  At some point during his years of appeals, he developed paranoid schizophrenia and had to be given psychotropic drugs to relieve the symptoms.  His psychosis went into remission, but then he stopped taking the drugs, making it difficult to carry out his sentence: we don't execute the insane.  The issue then became an ethical dilemma: do we force him back onto medication to make him sane enough (competent) to be executed?  In some states, that has been the case, and this did occur in Singleton's situation.

Charles Singleton
Charles Singleton

If a person is judged incompetent, they're given treatment toward the goal of restoring them to competence.  That means they could be locked up indefinitely, or that civil matters such as business decisions that need attention must be put into the hands of a guardian.  Resolving these issues in some manner allows the court to move forward.  Yet in criminal proceedings, once a person is judged competent, an even more challenging evaluation may remain ahead: the mental state at the time of the person's offense.

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