Competence and The Insanity Defense (Part 1)

by | Oct 30, 2016 | Blog, Criminal Law, Legal Procedures

Criminal Attorney Brick NJIn the case of State v. June Gorthy, decided on September 28, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower appellate court and Ocean County trial court in holding that a trial court cannot invoke the insanity defense over the objection of a defendant that has been found competent to stand trial.

The interplay of the insanity defense and competence most often involves a competent defendant’s decision to waive their right to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial, i.e. a trial decided by the judge alone. This is usually a wise strategic decision in light of the general public’s skepticism and misunderstandings with regard to the insanity defense. The principle misconception is the idea that a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity is immediately released to live in the community without supervision. The reality is that such defendants are confined for additional evaluations for a period ranging from several weeks to several decades. Thus, the insanity defense should only be used as an alternative to traditional defenses when it is absolutely necessary.

With Gorthy, the issue was different. The Court held in relevant part that:When a criminal defendant is found competent to stand trial under N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4, he or she has the autonomy to make strategic decisions at trial, with the advice of counsel, including whether to assert the insanity defense. Based on the trial court’s finding that defendant was competent to stand trial, and the detailed explanation that it gave defendant of the potential benefits and risks of the insanity defense, the court should have permitted her to decide whether to assert the defense, rather than invoking it on her behalf. We reverse the trial court’s judgment of acquittal by reason of insanity on the stalking charge, and remand for a new competency determination and, if appropriate, a new trial on this charge. We affirm defendant’s conviction on the weapons charges.

An important factor in determining whether defendant is competent to stand trial under N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4(b) is whether defendant has the capacity to assist in his or her own defense, which turns on whether defendant’s mental condition precludes meaningful interaction with his or her attorney regarding the pending charges and the trial. Where, as here, a court declares a defendant competent to stand trial, the defendant is deemed capable of understanding the basic elements of the proceeding, interacting with counsel to provide information, and making decisions about his or her defense.