A SKILLED, DEDICATED CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY SITS ALONE WITH HIS CLIENT IN A DREARY JAILHOUSE HOLDING CELL. THE DEFENDANT IS CHARGED WITH A SERIOUS FELONY AND, UNFORTUNATELY FOR HER, THE PROSECUTION'S EVIDENCE OF GUILT IN THIS CASE IS OVERWHELMING.
The accomplished lawyer does his best to communicate to his hapless client that, despite diligent legal preparation and expert pre-trial advocacy, her prospects at trial are dreadful. The State's Attorney has graciously made a plea offer that is substantially superior to any sentence the judge is sure to impose following a guilty verdict. Upon advising his client to accept the State's offer, as it is clearly in her best interest, the defendant responds with a troubling and all-too-familiar refrain, "God will deliver me from this." Further discussion reveals that the client believes herself to be in dialogue with an all-powerful celestial being, and that she has been assured of divine favor at trial. The client is otherwise coherent, rational, and cooperative. Yet it's obvious to the seasoned attorney that his client's decision to reject the State's charitable offer is wildly imprudent, and he immediately begins to ponder a vexing dilemma: Does a criminal defendant's decision to proceed to trial based primarily on religious delusions render her unfit?
How should the criminal justice system respond to an individual who sincerely believes that he or she receives infallible advice and earthly intervention from a religious deity? This sort of appeal to a higher power is not uncommon among criminal defendants, particularly those who are up against the greatest odds. While this blatant irrationality is profoundly frustrating in and of itself, it is the criminal justice system's response to this madness (or lack thereof) that is most infuriating.
Mentally incompetent persons are protected from criminal prosecution and sentencing by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This well-established legal principle provides a safeguard for the mentally deficient and the flagrantly irrational from the powerful and harsh American criminal justice system. In many jurisdictions the notion of competency is commonly referred to as "fitness." Requiring that criminal defendants be mentally fit before they are prosecuted strengthens the integrity of our courts by helping to ensure both fair trials and just, humane treatment of the accused.
Half a century ago the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Dusky v. U.S. that in order for a defendant to be considered competent to stand trial, he or she must have a "sufficient present ability to consult with his...