By Jeffrey A. Schaler and Richard E. Vatz
In the interface of law and psychology, there are three legal and established criteria to determine competency to stand trial: (1) Does the defendant understand the charges brought against her? (2) Is the defendant able to assist her attorney with a defense? And (3) does the defendant understand the proceedings of the court?
According to the Baltimore Sun, “Jamerria Hall, 28, was charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of her children, 6-year-old Da’Neira Thomas, and 8-year-old Davin Thomas Jr., who were found dead inside their Southwest Baltimore apartment last month.”
Hall, says The Sun, was found by Baltimore District Court Judge Jack Lesser to be legally incompetent to stand trial. That finding implies that Hall is “incapable of understanding the nature of the charges against her and of aiding her own defense. “
Lesser ordered a psychiatric evaluation, and Hall’s case will be inactive until she is found competent to stand trial.
Consistent with the Maryland criminal justice system’s lack of holding felons seriously accountable for their behavior, three years ago Hall, after setting fire to her mother’s home with her children present, evidenced premeditation that included dismantling smoke detectors. She was sentenced to five years and served but one year with the rest suspended. Subsequently, and astonishingly, she was granted custody of those same children.
Perhaps mitigating her sentence when it should have been irrelevant, she pleaded to the judge that she was under psychiatric care.
Specifically, there is no way to corroborate a finding that a person doesn’t understand the nature of the charges against himself or herself, nor can it be proved that a person cannot aid in his or her defense.
“Competency to stand trial,” hundreds of years old in Anglo-Saxon criminal justice, is considered fundamental as a concept, but is unwieldy in practice. Everyone agrees that if a person truly does not understand the charges faced and literally cannot help his counsel in defense, there is a basic unfairness inherent in the process.
But, as with the insanity plea, there is no way to validate any findings relevant to such pleas.
Defendants have tremendous motivation to falsify their understanding of questions. Whether they are seen as competent or incompetent will often depend on the motives of those asking questions.
Hall apparently perfectly lucidly and falsely claimed that her children, already dead, had been taken by their father. She had a history of complaining about the trials of being a mother.
She confessed to having killed her children. People heard screams from her house from the children, including her daughter’s yelling, “No, Mommy!”
Years earlier, when police investigated her and her children’s being missing, it turned out she had admitted them and herself to a hospital.
If Hall is eventually to be found competent, she will likely plead not criminally responsible, Maryland’s version of the insanity plea, so she gets two bites of the apple.
The criminal justice system often rejects the least complicated explanation: Hall is a malicious murderer of two children who caused her anger and irritation, as all children do until a few of them end up being murder victims of mothers or others who understand quite well the consequences of their acts but are not sure of the legal consequences, as we are not.
There may arguably be times when a person is validly incompetent to stand trial. When a person is physically ill or unconscious, for example, she obviously may not be capable of understanding the charges brought against her. And of course, children may not be competent in any and all of these three areas for obvious developmental reasons. We limit the freedom of children in direct proportion to their ability to be responsible for their behavior and its consequences.
These three conditions of incapacity or inability to understand charges and proceedings and ability to help in one’s own defense are ordinarily time-limited. When the supposed crisis passes, the defendant returns to trial and may be found innocent or guilty or not criminally responsible. We do not deprive a defendant of liberty indefinitely without evidence of mens rea (criminal intent) and actus reus (criminal act).
In the Hall case, criminal intent and criminality are prima facie evident. Only through psychological mystification would judges or reasonable people be convinced otherwise.
Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D., a psychologist, is a retired professor of Justice, Law and Society at American University where he taught full time for many years. He was also a member of the psychology faculty at Johns Hopkins University. email@example.com ,
Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D., teaches political persuasion at Towson University. He also specializes in rhetoric and psychiatry.
Both writers are lead editors of Thomas Szasz: The Man and His Ideas, Routledge and Transaction, 2017. Professors Schaler and Vatz received the Thomas Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions from the Center for Independent Thought.