What Does Jared Loughner’s Competency Hearing Mean? Three Experts Weigh In

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Jared Lee Loughner

At a competency hearing Wednesday afternoon, a federal judge ruled Jared Loughner incompetent to stand trial. Loughner, who faces 49 federal charges, is the suspect in a January 8 shooting massacre in Tuscon that left six dead and 14 wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Wednesday’s ruling will send Loughner to a federal mental-health facility for treatment in an effort to restore his competence. He will be re-evaluated at a competency hearing in September.

(MORE: Loughner found unfit to stand trial)

To better understand what this means for his case, NewsFeed spoke with three different legal experts. Daniel Gitner is a current partner at Lankler Siffert & Wohl and former Chief of the General Crimes Unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Gabriel Chin is a professor of law at the University of Arizona. Stephen Morse is a professor of Law in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

What does “unfit to stand trial” mean?

Gitner: It means the defendant cannot consult in a rational way with a lawyer to aid in the defense of the case and the defendant does not have a rational understanding of the charges that he or she is facing, the meaning of the charges and the meaning of the proceeding.

Morse: It demeans the dignity of the criminal trial process to try somebody who doesn’t understand what’s happening. There’s too much risk of erroneous wrongful conviction if he’s too out of it.

What happens next?

Morse: If the defendant is found incompetent to stand trial — and Loughner was virtually everywhere — he is going to be committed to a secure medical or psychiatric facility for the purpose of restoring competence to stand trial.

Chin: In a case like this the government will put whatever resources and time as are necessary to restore this person to competency if it’s possible to do so.

Can they medicate him as a way to restore competence?

Morse: The Supreme Court has held that under certain limited conditions people who are unfit to stand trial can be forcibly medicated solely for the purpose of restoring trial competence.

Chin: The Ninth Circuit has held that you can’t forcibly medicate someone in order to restore them to competency unless government interests are at stake and it will further those interests. It’s substantially likely to render him competent and substantially unlikely that side effects could interfere with the fairness of the trial. If it’s medically appropriate and if it’s the last resort then it is permissible.

If he’s found unfit to stand trial at his follow up hearing in September, where does the case go from there?

Morse: If the mental health professionals think they can restore him they’re entitled to “reasonable time” to do so. But you heard it here first—Jared Loughner is going to be restored to competence and tried. Nationwide most defendants initially found incompetent can be restored in about six months.

How does this differ from an insanity plea?

Gitner: Incompetent to stand trial means the defendant doesn’t have an ability to consult rationally with his lawyer and to aid the defense of the case or to understand the charges they’re facing. Legally insane is when somebody claims that they are incapable to determine the difference between right and wrong at the time they committed the crime.

Morse: Rationality can be very context-dependent. The question that we’re asking for incompetence to stand trial is does he understand what’s happening to him and can he help the person who’s trying to help him. The issue with legal insanity is was he responsible at the time of the crime in the past. It’s a retrospective mental state evaluation as opposed to a current mental state evaluation.

So Loughner could be legally sane but unfit to stand trial?

Morse: Absolutely. If he is actually tried it would mean he is competent and he may be found to have been not responsible at the time of the crime. In the alternative, it may have been that he was in fact perfectly responsible for himself at the time of the crime but he’s deteriorated since and is now incompetent to stand trial.

(PHOTOS: The world of Jared Lee Loughner)