Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Playing the System: The Martin Appel Case

I Want To Die

Hertzog consulted with an attorney, and insisted he was not guilty. He wanted a trial for the triple homicide. Appel, on the other hand, stated upfront that he expected to be executed and even wanted to die in the electric chair. He rejected the assistance of an attorney, although a public defender would have been appointed, and said he wished to go it alone in court.

Judge Robert A. Freedberg
Judge Robert A. Freedberg

Appel, 27, told Judge Robert A. Freedberg that he wanted to represent himself, in part because he believed only he could fully express his ideas and in part because having an attorney would slow the process. The judge described the charges and penalties, and Appel insisted he fully understood. He waived his right to counsel.

To cover all bases, Judge Freedberg ordered a psychiatric examination to ensure that Appel was competent to both waive counsel and defend himself. Competency should not be confused with sanity, or incompetency with insanity. These are distinct legal evaluations for quite different situations. The former emphasizes present mental functioning in a legal context and the latter criminal responsibility associated with an accused person's mental state at the time of an offense.

Doctrines of competency arose out of English common law in the interest of fairness to an accused person and of concern for the integrity of the justice system. Defendants with mental deficiencies who are not capable of participating in legal proceedings may suffer a miscarriage of justice, and issues of competence can arise at several different junctures. While one's competency to stand trial is perhaps the most familiar, there are other types of competencies as well, and clinicians may be involved in assessing them.

To ensure that defendants are competent in any of these situations, interviewers quiz them on their understanding of the rights they're waiving. As to whether their decision is voluntary, several courts have stated that a reduced sentenceeven a life sentence that takes the death penalty off the tableis not considered coercive. If the defendant is going to trial, evaluations for adjudicative competence may become more formal. The state will not subject an incompetent individual to a trial to determine his guilt or innocence of a specific charge, because society only recognizes responsibility in the acts of those individuals considered to be exercising free will.

Competency is assumed, so to be judged mentally incompetent by federal statutes, there must be a preponderance of evidence that there is a mental defect or condition that prevents the defendant from understanding the full situation. In other words, the burden of proof is on the defendant. A finding of incompetence, however, does not mean that the person is mentally ill. He or she may simply be ignorant, or have neurological or intelligence deficits. Those situations that require psychological evaluation for competency most often involve standing trial and waiving rights. At any time during a proceeding, a defendant may be tested for competence.

Dusky v. U.S. in 1960 was the landmark case in the Supreme Court for defining competency. The standards were set for recognizing that defendants must show a rational and factual understanding of the charges. According to the guidelines, to be judged competent, a defendant must possess sufficient present capacity to understand the criminal process, to function in that process, and to consult with counsel. That is, a defendant must clearly understand the roles played by the various participants and be able to participate.

To decide on competency, the evaluator must determine how the defendant views the present situation: is his or her description consistent with the facts. The examiner can then ask questions about the charges and procedures, the defendant's representative, what the jury does, and what will occur in the event of a guilty verdict. If the responses are clear and show an understanding of the relevant issues, the competency exam can be concluded. If not, the clinician may use an IQ test to measure intellectual deficiencies, a neurological evaluation to assess for organic conditions, or one of several competency screening devices. One more consideration for competency is that the defendant must be able to make a presentable court appearance.

Appel was examined by a board-certified psychiatrist, Dr. Janet Schwartz, and she determined that he was competent. He had no thought disorders or delusions that she could see, and his intelligence level was above average. She declared he had made a rational and thought-out decision to accept the death penalty. He even had a B.A. in psychology and had served in the army, albeit with a dishonorable discharge for going AWOL. At the time of the bank robbery, he'd been working as a cab driver, although he was a former prison guard (fired for impersonating a police officer). He did not wish to spend the rest of his life in prison. This all seemed consistent with a rational person who knew what he wanted.

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