I received a great tip from Anastasia Heeger, Senior Staff Attorney at the Office of the Appellate Defender in New York yesterday, about a case in which their office represented the defendant. The case presents a detailed look at the use of neuroscience in competency proceedings.
The defendant underwent a detailed competency determination, based on a persistent and permanent brain damage that both sides agreed the defendant suffered. The dispute was over whether his brain damage was sufficient to render him unable to understand the proceedings against him and to assist in his own defense. The trial experts were sharply divided on this issue, and the trial counsel issued a 55-page opinion finding the defendant competent to stand trial despite his limitations.
I’ve written previously about the growing use of neuroscience in competency proceedings. This case both highlights the extensive neurological testing and testimony growing in this area, but also a thorny issue going forward. As the New York Court of Appeals states in their opinion, “trial fitness is a legal, judicial determination, and not a medical one.” To what extent will the medical/neurological evidence challenge this standard?
Competency to stand trial, Permanent Brain Injury, Legal vs. Medical Standards
People v. Phillips, NY Court of Appeals, No. 41, Slip Opinion (March 29, 2011)
Opinion by Judge Jones, Ciparick, Graffeo, Read, Smith and Pigott concur. Chief Judge Lippman dissents.
After being indicted on charges of attempted second degree murder, first degree assault, aggravated criminal contempt, first degree criminal contempt, third degree weapon possession, and third degree menacing, defendant was ordered to undergo a competency examination. Prior to these criminal incidents — over an 11-year period that commenced in the late 1990s — defendant had suffered a series of strokes that affected his ability to communicate. At his initial examination, defendant was found unfit for trial. Several months later a competency hearing was conducted over a six-month period where both the People and defendant profferred expert medical testimony with respect to defendant’s condition and fitness for trial. Both sides agreed that defendant suffered from transcortical motor aphasia, a permanent brain injury that affects defendant’s language and speech skills as evidenced by MRIs indicating a permanent lesion in the left hemisphere of defendant’s brain. However, the expert opinions sharply diverged with respect to defendant’s ability to perceive and comprehend trial proceedings. At the conclusion of the hearing, Supreme Court issued a 55-page decision finding defendant fit for trial. The court credited the People’s experts, finding that defendant’s experts performed tests in the abstract that had no bearing on the legal competency needed for trial. Furthermore, the court considered its own observations during the course of the six-month hearing which included, inter alia, defendant’s amusement during humorous moments, turning to counsel when important information was elicited, or answering “not me” when asked who the prosecutor would assist. After trial, a jury convicted defendant of all charges. Defendant moved to set aside the verdict and for a new trial and the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that there was no basis to overturn the finding that defendant was fit for trial based on the thorough competency hearing and the trial court’s resolution of the conflicting expert testimony. A Judge for the NY Court of Appeals granted defendant leave to appeal, and then affirmed the decision below. The Court noted that while the Defendant claimed incompetency given the nature and permanency of his brain injury, trial fitness is a legal, judicial determination, and not a medical one. The Court held that the trial court made an appropriate legal determination of competency after considering all available evidence.