Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960).
This case answers the following question:
What is the minimum amount of competence a defendant must have to stand trial?
This is a per curiam opinion of the Court that simply finds the record insufficient to answer the petitioner’s challenge that he was not competent to stand trial. Id. at 403. The Court notes that the correct standard to apply is that the defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Id. This is more than just an orientation “to time and place and has some recollection of events.” Id.
In this case, the defendant was convicted of kidnap and rape. Dusky v. United States, 271 F.2d 385, 390 (8th Cir. 1959). He was sent for a medical evaluation to determine if he was competent to stand trial. Id. at 387. The examination found that the defendant suffered from schizophrenia, visual hallucinations, and several other mental afflictions. Id. at 388. It also noted that the defendant “denie[d] complete memory of the events of the day of the alleged offense.” Id. at 387. However, the psychiatrist noted that defendant was “oriented as to time, place, and person.” Id. at 388.
Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals found this orientation sufficient to demonstrate the defendant was competent to stand trial. Id. at 390. This is true even though the government’s own witness testified that the defendant could not properly assist in his own defense. Id. Clearly, based on the Court’s announced standard, this evidence should have been considered in a different way, leading to the remand back the District Court for further findings.