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Why mental competence matters in criminal law

In Michigan, a criminal trial cannot proceed if the defendant is mentally incapable of participating in his or her own defense. The defendant’s mental abilities are often in dispute at trial.

For example, the attorney for a Flint woman charged with arson in connection with a 2016 apartment fire says the woman has an IQ of 45 and is considered “extremely deficient” mentally. The woman has undergone a psychiatric evaluation, which the judge overseeing the case reviewed at a March 15 hearing, Mlive reports.

The woman is charged with first-degree arson and could face life in prison if convicted. Her attorney noted that the Michigan Center for Forensic Psychiatry declared his client competent to stand trial despite her IQ, saying the department “glassed over” relevant evidence of her mental state.

The defense lawyer asked the judge for extra time to conduct an independent investigation of the woman. The judge granted the motion, but declined to set bond, forcing the woman to remain in jail.

No trial can be called “fair” when the defendant is unable to communicate with his or her lawyer or understand the proceedings and the potential consequences. The competency requirement is meant to prevent the injustice of someone getting convicted of a crime simply because he or she was not able to mount a legitimate defense.

Everyone charged with a crime has the right to strong legal defense. Trying to take on the complexities of the criminal justice system by yourself will put you at a severe disadvantage, so make sure to call an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible after an arrest.

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