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Mental incompetence of defendant delays murder trial

Most people in Pennsylvania are aware that a criminal defendant's mental health may prevent a conviction, but few people realize that the mental health of the defendant is really a two-level test. The first test is a determination of whether the defendant is capable of understanding the trial proceedings and assisting in his defense. In other words, is the defendant mentally competent to stand trial?

This question has been raised in the case of a man charged with the murder of his neighbor in December 2014. The defendant and the female victim lived in the same apartment complex. When the woman was found dead in her bathtub, the defendant became a person of interest and then a suspect. After he was arrested on murder charges, he behaved bizarrely at his arraignment, and a number of observers wondered about his mental health.

Last week, a doctor retained by the state concluded that, in his current mental state, the man was not competent to stand trial. The doctor also found that the man could regain competency by taking certain medications. The medication could not be lawfully forced upon the defendant and he would be required to take the medication voluntarily. The court can order the defendant committed to a state mental institution pending a further evaluation, but the court cannot order the defendant to take medication.

In this situation, the prosecution, not the defense, is raising the issue of the defendant's mental health. The prosecution wants to make certain that the defendant is competent to stand trial. However, even if the defendant regains his competency, he can also argue that he suffered from a mental illness at the time of the crime that deprived him of the ability to understand that he was committing a crime.

Source: Scranton Times-Tribune, "Scranton homicide suspect deemed incompetent," Joseph Kohut, Dec. 12, 2015

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