Coroner’s Journal

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 14, 1998

By DR. CHRISTY MONTEGUT / L’Observateur / October 14, 1998

In the state of Louisiana, parish coroners are frequently called upon to serve on sanity commissions to determine the mental competency of defendants in criminal court trials. Besides the coroner, there can be one but not more thantwo other physicians appointed to the commission, with one of these usually being a psychiatrist. These physicians must then conduct an examination todetermine the mental capacity of the defendant and report their findings to the court in writing and with live testimony.

The burden of proof for mental incompetence rests on the defendant, as the court legally presumes that all defendants are competent. The standards formental competency have been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court and state thatan individual should have sufficient ability to consult with and assist his lawyer in his defense and should have a factual understanding of the charges against him. Louisiana defines mental capacity in a similar manner, mentalincapacity exists when, as a result of mental disease or defect, a defendant presently lacks the capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his defense. To elaborate on this definition, there are other factors tobe considered in reaching this decision, such as the awareness by the defendant of the nature of the charges and their seriousness. Also considered are thedefendants ability to distinguish between pleas of guilty and not guilty, and his comprehension of the range of possible verdicts against him. The defendant’sability to assist his counsel is evaluated as well as his recall and relation of facts pertaining to his actions.

Low I.Q. is not equated with incompetency unless mental retardation or defectis so severe that a defendant is unable to meet the criteria for mental competence as outlined above. However, there have been numerous cases wheremental retardation by itself is insufficient to establish mental incompetency.

Amnesia is not necessarily a mental incapacity to proceed. If a defendant cannot recall the time and events of the alleged offense but does understand his charges and can assist his attorney, then he can be declared mentally competent to stand trial. Also, mental illness should not be equated with incompetency, asthe nature of the charges and the gravity of the case also weigh heavily in the decision.

If the sanity commission finds the defendant mentally incompetent to stand trial, it can recommend treatment either in a state psychiatric hospital or in jail with use of out-patient mental health professionals. If the defendant’scondition improves with treatment, he can then be reevaluated by the sanity commission and if found mentally competent, he can then stand trial for his charges.

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