Competency proceedings seem like a natural place for criminal defendants to introduce expert evidence using cognitive neuroscience or behavioral genetics. In competency proceedings, while objective manifestations of competency are relevant, so is evidence about the particular defendant’s subjective capacity.
A perennial problem in this and other other applications of behavioral sciences in law, however, is establishing a causal link between the biological causes and the legal standard at issue.
In the case today, the defendant claimed that he lacked the competency to stand trial because he suffered a head injury several weeks prior to trial. The court found that the defendant failed to prove that any head injury he sustained actually impaired his ability to understand the nature of the proceedings and to participate in his defense. In other words, the internal link between head injury and the defendant’s specific limitations was not established. So, too, in other cases, including toxic torts, disability cases, and other applications in criminal law.
Head Injury, Competency to Stand Trial, Causation
Moore v. Kirkpatrick, 2011 WL 1233124 (W.D.N.Y.,2011)
Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which was dismissed because Petitioner failed to make “a substantial showing of a denial of a constitutional right.” Petitioner was convicted by a jury of Sodomy in the First Degree attempted Rape in the First Degree, four counts of Sexual Abuse in the First Degree, five counts of Endangering the Welfare of a Child, and three counts of Forcible Touching. In his petition, the Petitioner claimed ineffective assistance of counsel and also that he was “unable to understand the proceedings or assist in his defense due to a mental disease or defect.” Specifically, he asserts that he sustained serious head injuries weeks prior to trial and was taking anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication. In deciding the motion, the court rejected the claim on the merits, finding as follows: “[h]aving examined defendant’s exhibits there is no basis to conclude that [Petitioner] lacked the capacity to understand and participate in the proceedings.” Competency to stand trial is an issue of fact. A state court’s competency determination, therefore, is entitled to a presumption of correctness on habeas review. In order to succeed on a habeas claim challenging a state factual determination, a petitioner has the “burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(i). Petitioner failed to do so because the evidence submitted did not prove that any head injury Petitioner sustained prior to trial and/or his medications actually impaired his ability to understand the nature of the proceedings and to participate in his defense. Since no factors arose during trial that would have called Petitioner’s competency into doubt, the trial judge was not presented with any reasonable cause upon which to question Petitioner’s competence to participate in the proceedings. The court found no basis to grant habeas relief on this or the other issues the Petitioner advanced in his petition.