March 22, 2011

Loughner update: Skirmishing over competency

Arguments over who, where, how and what of evaluation   

In federal court this week, the government and defense skirmished over the mechanics of evaluating the competency to stand trial of Jared Loughner, the suspect in January's high-profile shooting rampage in Arizona. This skirmish is likely to be the first of many involving Loughner's psychiatric state, a central issue in the case.

Who should conduct the evaluation?
  • Government: Bureau of Prisons staff should conduct the evaluation.
  • Defense: Outside mental health experts are more likely to be impartial. 
  • Court ruling: Bureau of Prisons will evaluate the defendant.

Where should the evaluation take place?
  • Government: Loughner should be evaluated at the federal Bureau of Prisons facility in Springfield, Missouri, a medical referral center with specialized forensic resources. In a memo, the chief of psychiatry for the Bureau of Prisons, Dr. Donald Lewis, said Springfield was the best facility for a competency evaluation, because it "has medical staff available for neurology and other organic testing, and has far more forensic staff and full-time psychiatrists available to provide round-the-clock assistance," according to an AP news brief.
  • Defense: Loughner should not be moved from his current federal prison housing in Tucson. He is "seriously ill," and moving him to Missouri could worsen his state and restrict his lawyers’ access, thereby impeding their efforts to gain his trust. The defense has also expressed concern that this move will facilitate prison officials' collecting and releasing private information to prosecutors.
  • Court ruling: Loughner will be sent to the federal prison in Springfield. 

How should the evaluation be conducted?

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ordered that the evaluation will be videotaped and that the videos will be provided to both prosecutors and defense attorneys. It was not clear from news reports whether one side requested the videotaping, or whether the judge introduced this idea on his own.

What should the evaluation address?

One tricky area in assessing the competency of a defendant who may later plead insanity is that an incompetent defendant may make incriminating or otherwise unwise statements about the crime itself. In a competency assessment, evaluators have a duty not to probe into the defendant's mental state at the time of the offense, leaving that inquiry until the defendant is certified as competent and enters a plea of insanity. If a defendant blurts out information about the motivations for the offense, these should not be included in a written report on competency.

Loughner's attorneys expressed concern that with prison staff at the helm, a competency inquiry might expand into a review of Loughner's sanity. The federal court judge ruled that the scope of the exam must be limited to whether the defendant is competent to stand trial, not whether he was sane at the time of the shooting. However, the videotaping of the evaluation may make this difficult to achieve in practice, increasing the risk that information pertaining to Loughner's state of mind at the time of the crime will be prematurely revealed to prosecutors.

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