Mental Health as a Criminal Defense — Part 1

Boulder attorney

The intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system can be a complex and sensitive issue. In this two-part blog series, we’ll review how mental health can impact a criminal trial and some possible ramifications.

The Challenges of Mental Competence

On March 22, 2021, a shooter walked into King Soopers in South Boulder and opened fire, killing ten people. The tragedy sent shockwaves through our community, which rightly has called for justice.

And yet, two years later the case has not been resolved. The shooter’s case is on hold because the Court has determined that the defendant is presently not mentally competent to proceed; that is, he’s not capable in assisting in his defense due to his alleged present mental disabilities. [The D.A. questions his present incompetence and has requested a hearing on the issue.]

In the U.S., you cannot prosecute somebody unless they are fully capable of understanding what is going on and assisting their attorneys.

In the King Soopers case, the shooter has been sent to the State mental health hospital where he’s supposed to be brought to competency. Once he is competent, the D.A. can proceed with the criminal case.

This brings up another issue: the Boulder D.A. believes that this shooter is magnifying his alleged issues and/or is not using his best efforts to rehabilitate himself to avoid facing the consequences of his actions. There is evidence that he’s not fully cooperating, participating in sessions, etc. In light of this, the D.A. has requested, and the judge has agreed, that they will now have a full hearing on whether he is competent enough for a trial.

Time will reveal where this is headed. If he is determined by the Court to be competent, he will go to trial.

Competency at the Moment of the Crime

The question of mental competency extends beyond whether a defendant is able to work with his or her attorneys; a Court must also address if a person being prosecuted for a criminal offense was competent at the time of the offense. Did he/she have sufficient mental capabilities to understand that what he/she was doing was illegal.

There are two types of crimes: general intent, and specific intent.

General Intent

If you get pulled over for a DUI, the D.A. doesn’t have to prove whether or not you intended to drive drunk. If they can prove you were drunk while you were driving, they have a strong case. Intent doesn’t matter.

Specific Intent

If you’re charged with attempted murder, however, the D.A. will need to prove that you intended to kill the person you were hurting (or trying to hurt). One of the prosecution’s burdens is to prove that you intended to commit murder.

Now, in some cases, it has been argued that a person becomes so enraged in a moment that they “see red,” in other words, they’re so emotionally distraught that they become temporarily incapable of forming the requisite intent. This is where the question of competency at the moment of a crime can become a big question.

Some time in the past, a woman who went on trial for killing her stepson. She was accused of putting his body in a suitcase, driving it to Florida, and throwing the suitcase off a bridge. The defense didn’t dispute that she did this — it had been documented. But they wanted her declared “not guilty” because she was allegedly incapable of forming the requisite mental intent when the act was committed.

The jury didn’t buy it for a second, and she was found guilty. Based on the evidence I heard, I believe the jury, in large part, surmised that, as a result of the amount of planning it required for her to execute her plan, she had the requisite mental capabilities.

Hire an Attorney for Your Criminal Case in Boulder

If you are facing criminal charges, let’s talk. Call our office today at 303-449-1873 to schedule a complimentary consultation and find out if Barre Sakol is the right representative for your case.

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