April 20, 2011

Australian man spends decade in prison without trial

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)
In Western Australia, the case of one such man is making headlines. Marlon Noble has spent 10 years behind bars after being accused of sexually assaulting two girls. He is mentally impaired from a childhood bout of meningitis.

"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.

If he has been tried and found guilty he would never ever been sentenced to the length of time.
-- Ida Curtois            

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:

Here, the risk of an erroneous deprivation is high…. Those committed as "sex offenders" under Article 10 are housed in a secure psychiatric facility and segregated from those who are not "sex offenders." After release from confinement, those labeled "sex offenders" are subjected a regimen of "strict and intensive supervision and treatment," which may include but need not be limited to, electronic monitoring or global positioning satellite tracking for an appropriate period of time, polygraph monitoring, specification of residence or type of residence, [and] prohibition of contact with identified past orpotential victims. Given the attendant stigma and significant liberty infringements that result from application of the label "sex offender" under Article 10, the consequences of an erroneous application of that label are severe.
The legal challenge was brought by the state's Mental Hygiene Legal Service, which provides legal service to psychiatric patients, including at least 22 pretrial defendants who -- like Mr. Noble in Western Australia -- have been found incompetent to stand trial on sex charges.


wolverine4abolishment said...

This is clearly detention without trial - the only difference is that this person is perhaps unfit mentally. Such excuse only trivial the logic sense of criminal laws in a country where there is such high tolerance for human rights. Even if the Aussie justice system regards this as in relation to a medical condition, then there should be medical procedures to deal with this sort if "ethnic insanity" or relatively this could be a case of discrimination as well. As long as the facts and truth are muddled in a small town or (Aussie's term as "Outback") justice, we can only hope for the best for this ethnic minority.

jules said...

Of course this is detention without trial. I don't understand the way that Wolverine4abolishment's argument turns to the topic of ethnic insanity. On the other hand there are many examples of cases of this nature where the (former) defendant is locked away in civil commitment for decades by seemingly endless cycles of competency evaluation-->(low bar of presumptive incompetency)-->competency restoration-->failure to restore (because of a high bar of competency restoration/functional capacity)-->civil commitment incompetency-->treatment-->arraignment-->incompetency--->and the cycle continues. Drs. Murrie and Zafp have written extensively on this and as long as there is the potential for partisan allegiance in evaluations for competency and mental state, the mental health system (which is supposed to be collaborative and collegial) and those railroaded into it by both parties will be held hostage by the criminal justice system (which is by definition adversarial.)

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

And it's when concerns for public safety enter the mix -- as with men accused of sex crimes -- that we are especially likely to see lengthy detention. If a person is incompetent but not considered dangerous, he/she is likely to be released.

john said...

marlon noble's case is actually breaking one of our key concepts of law in australia which is the rule of law which states that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law which means that they cannot actually put him in prison for this length of time without a trial