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Chism Murder Trial Raises Unsettling Questions Regarding Competency to Stand Trial

The ongoing trial of Philip Chism, which resumed yesterday following the Thanksgiving holiday, presents an unusual and disturbing set of issues in view of the terrible nature of the defendant’s actions, his extreme youth, and his apparently very serious mental illness.  First, the events at issue are undeniably horrifying; Chism admittedly raped and killed his teacher, who was by all accounts a wonderful person and whose death was a tremendous loss.  (Beyond that, I won’t recount the details here, but they have been set forth at length in the press.)  Second, Chism, who was 14 years old when he killed his teacher, is being tried as an adult, which he undeniably is not and was not at the time of the crime; as Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed has written, treating children as adults is problematic regardless of how horrifying their actions are.  And finally, Chism, who is now 16 years old, has exhibited signs of significant mental illness during his trial, repeatedly raising a question about whether he is actually competent to stand trial.

Chism’s trial was delayed so that his competency could be evaluated after he said during jury selection that he wished to be shot in the courtroom and claiming that voices told him not to trust his attorneys.  The trial judge concluded, following that evaluation, that he was competent, and the case has moved forward.  Chism is not currently contesting his competency to stand trial, despite a breakdown on the second day of his trial in which he refused to return to the courtroom, telling his defense counsel while shaking, twitching, and mumbling that he was “about to explode” and didn’t want to hurt anyone.  The case thus sheds light on the difficult questions that arise when the criminal justice system must handle serious mental illness or disability.

While most people with mental illness are not violent, many criminal defendants are suffering from mental illness, related or unrelated to their alleged crimes.  Although Chism is seeking to convince a jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity, the issue of his guilt or innocence is wholly separate from the issue of whether he is competent to stand trial, even though both questions involve detailed inquiries into his mental state.  Whether a defendant is or is not criminally responsible for his actions is for the jury to decide, not the judge, and to answer that question the jury has to examine evidence regarding the defendant’s mental state at the time of his actions.  Before a case where a defendant’s competency is in question can be presented to a jury, though, the judge has to answer the separate question of whether, at the time of trial, the defendant is capable of participating in his own defense.  If he is not, then, pursuant to the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, he cannot be tried and he cannot enter a guilty plea.  This doesn’t mean that he will go free; instead, typically defendants are treated for their mental illness while held at a psychiatric facility, with the goal of improving their mental health to a point where they are able to stand trial.

The test for competence is “whether [the defendant] has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him”–that is, whether he can participate with his lawyer in the defense of his own case, and understand not just the factual allegations against him but the nature of the charges, the range of possible penalties, the adversarial nature of the legal process, and the ramifications of his decisions.  A defendant may be found competent even where the nature and extent of his illness would make most of us very skeptical about his ability to adequately assist his counsel in defending him.  Courts have held that even defendants laboring under sincerely believed delusions may be competent to stand trial.  Indeed, courts in multiple states have upheld convictions of defendants who believed that they were the Messiah; California even allowed the defendant in one such case to waive counsel and represent himself at trial, pursuing a trial strategy seeking to prove himself the Messiah.

It is certainly not in the interest of every defendant to be found incompetent to stand trial.  For many charged with minor crimes, a finding of incompetency may involve a longer period of confinement than would be likely to result from a conviction, as well as, in some cases, forced medication and other disadvantages.  (That said, detention following a finding of incompetency cannot be indefinite and in most cases should not exceed half of the maximum possible sentence for the charged crime.)

Chism is not now alleging that he is not competent to stand trial.  Even so, his youth coupled with his clear mental illness raises concerns; for youthful defendants, an inquiry into competence should include examination of factors beyond mental illness, including intellectual and emotional immaturity, learning disabilities, and intellectual disabilities.  Dr. Thomas Ritten has written, in the New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement, that “deficits in a youth’s ability to understand court proceedings and assist his attorney may be significantly impacted not only by a mental disorder or lowered intellectual capacity, but as a result of areas of developmental immaturity.”  In recent years the United States Supreme Court and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court have paid increasing attention to science about juvenile brain development in considering the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole, and similar recognition of the differences between adults and children when it comes to the meaningful ability to participate in a criminal trial is appropriate.  Chism’s youth, coupled with his clear mental health problems, should give us all some pause about what kind of justice is likely to result from his trial.

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