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Competency to Stand Trial

Just after midnight on January 8, 2015, reports say that John Nicholas Jonchuck, Jr., dropped his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe off a freeway bridge into Tampa Bay, causing her death.  Despite the fact that a police officer witnessed the act, Phoebe drowned before she could be rescued.  Thereafter, Jonchuck was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.  But Jonchuck, who has a history of mental illness, has repeatedly been found unfit to stand trial for his daughter’s death.

Florida’s mental competence law

One of the most basic tenets of our criminal justice system holds that before an individual can be held to account for allegedly criminal behavior, he must be competent to stand trial, meaning that he must understand the charges against him and be able to participate in his defense.  A defendant’s competency is an issue that can be raised at any time during a criminal prosecution. It is typically raised by defense counsel, but may also be brought under consideration by the court or the prosecutor.  Under Florida law, a defendant is incompetent to stand trial if:

  1. He lacks sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; or
  2. He has no rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him.

When a defendant’s competency is in issue, the law requires the court to appoint experts to examine the defendant and determine his mental condition.  First, the experts must decide whether the defendant suffers from any mental illness.  In Jonchuck’s case, he has a history of drug abuse and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar issues, necessitating medication.  After considering mental illness, the experts must specifically address the defendant’s capacity to:

  1. Appreciate the charges or allegations against him;
  2. Appreciate the nature and range of potential penalties he faces;
  3. Understand the adversarial nature of the legal process;
  4. Disclose to his counsel facts pertinent to the legal proceeding;
  5. Behave appropriately in the courtroom; and
  6. Testify relevantly.

The statute specifically states that if the defendant requires medication to understand the nature of the proceedings and assist in his defense, he should not be deemed incompetent simply because his competency rests upon his being medicated.

If the experts conclude that the defendant is incompetent to proceed, they must report to the court on any recommended treatment for the defendant to become competent.  Ultimately, after receiving the experts’ conclusions and recommendations, the court makes the final decision as to whether the defendant is fit to stand trial.

What happens if the defendant is incompetent?

If the defendant is determined not competent to stand trial, he will not be released.  Instead, he will be sent to a psychiatric facility until he is deemed competent.  Typically, such an individual is re-evaluated every few months.  In the case of an individual who (perhaps like Jonchuck) seems unlikely to ever attain competency, the charges may be dismissed and the defendant committed to a psychiatric facility for a longer period of time via a civil commitment procedure.

Consult a Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer

The dedicated criminal defense lawyers of The Baez Law Firm have extensive experience representing clients in a variety of criminal matters in Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and throughout Florida.  If you or someone you love is facing criminal charges, contact us for a free consultation about your case today.

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