Written by Dr. Nicole M. Vienna

April 1, 2020

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The Competency of the Defendant Is Discussed in a Courtroom.The most commonly referred legal issue for a forensic evaluation is competency to stand trial. Approximately 60,000 defendants are evaluated for competency annually, and the current research shows that this number is gradually increasing over time (Zapf, Roesch, & Pirelli, 2014).

The legal standard for competency to stand trial was established in Dusky v. United States (1960) and every state has adopted a variation of the Dusky standard. The law on competency to stand trial in California (Penal Code 1368 PC) states that a defendant cannot be tried or convicted of a crime, if they do not meet either of the two following prongs due to a mental disorder or developmental disability:

  • The defendant is not able to understand what is going on in court, or
  • The defendant cannot rationally participate in their own defense

Competence refers to the defendant’s present ability to meaningfully participate in their own defense and understand the criminal trial proceedings. A defendant’s right to a fair and speedy trial is included under the Sixth Amendment of United States’ Bill of Rights (U.S. Const. amend. VI). In order for a trial to be fair, the defendant must be able to fully comprehend why they were charged with a crime, what case is being brought against them, and assist their defense counsel.

A defendant may NOT be competent to stand trial if the defendant is:

  • unable to cooperate with the court or work with their lawyer
  • not understanding their role as a defendant
  • making irrational decisions regarding their legal case
  • unable to understand the four pleas and its consequences
  • unable to understand what a plea bargain is
  • unable to identify the members of the court and their roles, including the judge, prosecutor, and jury
  • unable to understand the severity of the charges against them

There can be other issues that may question a defendant’s competency to stand trial. If a defendant is suffering from or has a history of mental illness such as Bipolar Disorder, Delusional Disorder, or Schizophrenia (to name a few) that appears to be affecting their ability to make rational decisions or work with the defense counsel, a competency evaluation may be warranted. The issue of competency can be brought up at any time during the criminal proceedings.

How we evaluate competency

An evaluation of competency at VPG focuses on several factors, including an individual’s:

  • current mental status
  • comprehension of legal knowledge
  • capacity to communicate with their attorney
  • and any psychological deficits that is relevant to their legal case

VPG will conduct a thorough interview with the defendant in our office (if out of custody) or at the jail site. We will also review any necessary records and make any collateral contacts that have been previously discussed with you. Afterwards, we incorporate the complete findings of the evaluation and records into a comprehensive report that will be provided to you, the attorney, which may be useful in representing your client in court. We specialize in both adult and juvenile competency to stand trial evaluations. Dr. Vienna has been appointed to both the juvenile delinquency and adult criminal expert panel of psychologists in Los Angeles County. In addition, Vienna Psychological Group, Inc. is an approved vendor for San Bernardino County.

Please call our office for a free 20-minute case consultation to find out how one of our specialized evaluations can assist you and your client. Our office administrators can be reached at: 626-709-3494 or support@vpg-corp.com.


Competency to Stand Trial, Cal. Penal Code § 1368

Dusky v. United States 362, U.S. 402 (1960)

Murrie, D. C., & Zelle, H. (2015). Criminal competencies. In B. L. Cutler, P. A. Zapf, B. L. Cutler, P. A. Zapf (Eds.), APA handbook of forensic psychology, Vol. 1: Individual and situational influences in criminal and civil contexts (pp. 115-157). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14461-005

Pirelli, G., Gottdiener, W. H., & Zapf, P. A. (2011). A meta-analytic review of competency to stand trial research. Psychology, Public Policy, And Law17(1), 1-53.


U.S. Const. amend. VI.

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