Lacking the Capacity to Proceed to Trial Because of a Mental Illness

Mental illness is something I deal with as a criminal defense attorney almost every day. Many of my clients are dealing with some form of mental illness. People with mental illnesses are coming into contact with the criminal justice system throughout the country. The first area we look at if a defendant has significant mental illness is capacity to proceed to trial. Under North Carolina law, a defendant lacks the capacity to proceed to trial if by reason of a mental illness or defect he or she is unable to understand the nature and object of the proceedings, comprehend his or her situation in reference to the proceedings or assist in his or her defense in a rational or reasonable manner. This is a relatively low bar to get over to show capacity to proceed to trial. There are many defendants with significant mental health issues who nonetheless have the capacity to proceed to trial.

The first step is for a forensic evaluation to be performed by a mental health professional. The defense attorney, prosecutor or the court can request a forensic evaluation. Usually it is the defense attorneys that request them because they have the most interaction with their clients and are usually in the best position to know if an evaluation is needed. The forensic examiner will make an initial determination as to capacity. If the forensic evaluator determines that the defendant lacks capacity, the prosecutor can request an additional examination. These are typically done at Central Regional Hospital. However, for less serious charges, prosecutors will typically dismiss the case after an initial finding of a defendant lacking capacity. If the defense attorney and the prosecutor disagree as to the defendant’s capacity to proceed, there will be a hearing on the issue in front of a judge who will decide whether or not the defendant lacks the capacity to proceed to trial.

For more serious crimes, if a defendant has been found by a judge to lack the capacity to proceed to trial, the State will typically ask that the defendant be sent to a state mental hospital—again, usually Central Regional Hospital—to receive treatment until the defendant has the capacity to proceed to trial. How long that takes depends on the individual defendant. So, when it comes to capacity, not only is the bar so low that most defendants with significant mental illnesses have the capacity to proceed, those that lack the capacity to proceed will receive treatment until they have the capacity, and then usually end up going forward with their cases eventually. Check this space for more blogs on mental health issues lawyers face in the criminal justice system.

 

DISCLAIMER: THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IN THIS BLOG POST WAS PREPARED BY KLUTTZ, REAMER, HAYES, ADKINS AND CARTER AND IS INTENDED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND NOT, IN ANY WAY, CONSIDERED LEGAL ADVICE.

By:  Andrew Charles “Drew” Cochran, Board Certified Specialist in Criminal Law

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