Mental competency laws are designed to protect people who are accused of crimes from being subjected to legal prosecution if they cannot understand the proceedings or rationally assist in their defense. But some offenders are spending more time behind bars after a finding of unfitness to stand trial than if they had been tried and convicted.
|Marlon Noble and supporter (Photo credit ABC News)|
"If he has been tried and found guilty he would never ever been sentenced to the length of time," said longtime supporter Ida Curtois, a retired social worker.
He is one of 29 people in West Australian jails who have never been found innocent or guilty.
But in an unusual twist, the two alleged victims are now coming forward to clear his name. Since Noble never had a court hearing on the allegations, the case against him was never tested.
If Noble is released, his supporters say they will continue lobbying until all accused people being held indefinitely due to mental disabilities are given other options.
Incompetent defendants also detained indefinitely in U.S.
Most forensic psychologists in the United States can tell you about Theon Jackson. A "mentally defective deaf mute with a mental level of a pre-school child," Jackson could neither read nor write and was not proficient in sign language. Evaluators called his prognosis for attaining competency to stand trial "dim." Taking the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, his attorneys argued that he was effectively getting a life sentence for two street robberies that netted a grand total of nine dollars.
In a landmark ruling in 1972, the high court agreed, ruling that an accused person who is found incompetent to stand trial cannot be held longer than "the reasonable period of time necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that he will attain that capacity in the foreseeable future."
If it is determined that the individual will not become competent, "then the State must either institute the customary civil commitment proceeding that would be required to commit indefinitely any other citizen, or release the defendant."
In the current era of the sexually violent predator, however, incompetency statutes have made it easier to civilly commit accused individuals whose cases were never proven in criminal court.
In New York State, for example, which has just begun implementation of a new civil detention scheme for sex offenders, the government argued that since civil commitment is a civil proceeding, they should not have to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt as they would have to in a criminal trial. Instead, they argued that the standard of proof should be the lower "clear and convincing evidence" standard (sometimes equated to a level of certitude of about 75% as opposed to 95-99% for the beyond a reasonable doubt standard).
Late last month, U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts upheld a challenge to that position, declaring that despite the ostensibly "civil" nature of preventive detention, its consequences are too onerous to allow for a lowered standard of proof: