In State v. Coley, the Washington Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that defendants bear the burden of proof for establishing they are incompetent to stand trial after they complete therapeutic treatment designed to restore them to competency. While the right to be competent during a criminal trial is grounded in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Court primarily looked to Washington’s codification of that right at RCW Chapter 10.77. The Court found that legislature intended that the burden of proof fall on the party seeking to establish incompetency at all stages of trial, even after a prior finding of incompetency.
The Court somewhat softened its holding to preserve flexibility for trial courts, though not for defendants themselves. While generally assigning the burden of establishing incompetency on the moving party, the Supreme Court observed in a footnote that trial courts have a duty to question competency on their own initiative. When the trial court starts the inquiry, the defendant does not bear the burden of proof. A defendant will have an uphill battle whenever his or her advocates tries to establish incompetence to stand trial. However, courts cannot allow incompetent defendants to stand trial merely because their counsel fails to make the requisite affirmative showing. If the court itself comes to question competency, Coley does not relieve its obligation to stop proceedings against an incompetent defendant.
Dissent: Justice Gordon McCloud continued her sometimes lonely vigil for procedural due process, this time in a dissent joined by Justice Fairhurst. To interpret the statutory competence right, the dissent would have placed the burden on the party wishing to disrupt the status quo. Initially, the presumption is that a defendant is competent to stand trial and the burden is on the defendant who wish to change from this status quo to a finding of incompetence. Once the defendant had been found incompetent by a judge, the dissent argued that the status quo shifted to incompetence. Therefore the state should bear the burden of disrupting that status quo by showing the defendant was now competent to stand trial.
Procedural Note: The Washington Appellate Project represented the defendant against the Grant County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office . During oral argument, the prosecuting attorney’s office attempted to concede that the State bore the burden of proof, but the Court rejected this as a non-binding stipulation of law.
Commentary: When criminal courts grapple with mental illness, the jurisprudence is not always easy to explain. The defendant here committed a horrible act for which our state generally and Grant County Superior Court wished to see him punished. In order to do so, the courts had to adopt an idiosyncratic view of abnormal psychology.
It is noteworthy that Coley was not acquitted of his crime for reason of insanity even though he was found to lack the mental competence to stand trial shortly after his arrest. Following the findings of this case, Coley was sane when he committed his crime, then became something like insane following his arrest, and then returned to being sane at least long enough to get convicted of his crime.
Rather than forcing courts to parse the ethics of punishing versus healing a damaged mind, a better course would seem to be for the state to invest more money in mental health services. Perhas this would prevent some of the awful acts committed by individuals who are later the subject of competency hearings.