Mental incompetence test in Okla. is struck down Trial defense only needs minimal proof, court rules

April 17, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for someone claiming to be too mentally ill to be tried on criminal charges need offer only minimal proof of incompetence, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

The decision is intended to reduce the risk of an error that results in the trial of someone likely to be mentally ill. The court said it is unconstitutional for states to put a significant burden of proof on those claiming to be incompetent.

The court noted that it has long been clear that an incompetent person may not be put on trial, because an accused person must have the mental capacity to understand what is going on at the trial and to help the defense lawyer mount a defense.

In the past, however, the court had said the Constitution allows states to require the person claiming incompetence to prove it.

Yesterday's ruling clarified just how much proof is enough. A defense lawyer need offer only enough evidence to show that "it is more likely than not" that the person is incompetent. That is the lowest standard of proof in law.

The court thus struck down a law in Oklahoma that required the accused to prove incompetence "by clear and convincing evidence" -- a much tougher standard. Oklahoma is one of only four states that had taken the approach rejected yesterday; Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are the others.

The 46 other states either use the lowest standard of proof that the court embraced yesterday, or else shift the burden to the prosecution and require it to prove competence. The federal government uses the standard spelled out yesterday.

In Maryland, the Court of Appeals ruled in 1967 that a person claiming to be too mentally ill to be tried may not be put on trial unless prosecutors prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the person is competent -- the approach that is most protective of the accused.

Yesterday's unanimous decision came in the case of Byron Keith Cooper of Oklahoma City, who was convicted and sentenced to death in the murder of an 86-year-old woman in her home nearly seven years ago. Despite erratic behavior and his lawyers' claims of incompetence, Cooper was found competent to be tried because his lawyer could not satisfy the stringent Oklahoma requirement.

The ruling overturns Cooper's conviction and death sentence and reopens the competency issue.

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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