Supervillains and Competency

Last week we addressed the issue of whether or not supervillains could successfully employ the insanity defense in their criminal prosecutions. The answer we came up with was “It depends, but frequently not.”

This week we’re going to look at the issue of competence, which is a related but different matter. In short, while the insanity defense can turn a verdict from guilty into not, an incompetent defendant can’t go to trial at all, usually resulting in their commitment to a mental facility until such time as they are able to do so.

I. The Doctrine

Whether or not a defendant is competent to stand trial is a question which has to do with the constitutional right to due process. Specifically, the Supreme Court has held that unless a person is capable of 1) understanding the nature of the charges and proceedings against him, and 2) assisting defense counsel with the case, the state cannot proceed against them without violating the Fifth and/or Fourteenth Amendments. The controlling case is Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960). The Court later ruled in Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993) that this is the same standard for whether a defendant is competent to enter a guilty plea or waive their right to counsel. The theory is that conducting a trial against someone who literally cannot understand what’s going on is basically railroading them, as they can’t put on a legitimate defense. It is, essentially, just not fair, even if they did it.

It is important to recognize that this is fundamentally different from the insanity defense in two important ways. First, the insanity defense examines the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime, whereas a competency evaluation examines the defendant’s mental state at the time of the trial. It is possible for someone to be “insane” at the time of the crime and competent to stand trial, just as it is possible for someone to have been completely sane at the time of the crime but no longer competent when they are indicted. Second, the insanity defense, if employed successfully, generally results in a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict. This means that the defendant is usually released. But a defendant in custody who is found incompetent to stand trial will remain in judicial custody until such time as the trial may proceed, the theory being that if a grand jury felt there was enough evidence to approve the indictment, there is enough evidence to keep them in custody until trial. While this can result in extended periods of detention, the law tends to view this more as being denied bail than as receiving a sentence. So if a defendant wants to get out of jail as quickly as possible without breaking out, pleading incompetency is not really the way to go.

It’s worth pointing out that issues of competency can also be raised to prevent a defendant’s pending execution. The Supreme Court has ruled, in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986), that a person must be mentally competent before they may be executed. If a person on death row is found to be incompetent, they must be kept there until such time as they are deemed competent.

II. Supervillain competency

What about our supervillains then? The obvious place to start would be the Joker, and again, it seems pretty unlikely that a court would find him incompetent. He’s obviously aware of the legal significance of his actions–that’s why he’s doing them!–and the legal proceedings based upon them. The Joker in The Dark Knight clearly understood the role of the prosecutor as well, and made a demand for his civil rights while in police custody. No, he’s able to provide assistance to defense counsel, he just doesn’t feel like it. Note that simply refusing to play ball with defense counsel is not the same thing as being unable to do so, and feigning incompetence is actually a crime in and of itself–obstruction of justice–so it does not come as a recommended tactic

Remember The Hulk? Last time we decided that he’s going to be very difficult to successfully prosecute, as the insanity defense would be pretty easy to make out. But because competency evaluations look at the time of trial not the time of the crime, Bruce Banner might well be found competent. Even though he doesn’t necessarily remember the things he did while in Hulk-mode, he’s still well oriented in Banner-mode, so there does not seem to be any reason that a trial could not proceed. Which is probably okay for Banner, because he’d rather not be indefinitely detained for trial, he’d rather just use the insanity defense and go home.

Deadpool might be a good example of an incompetent defender here. He might not be able to successfully plead insanity, as he is generally aware that he is hired to kill people and that this is, shall we say, “disfavored” by the establishment. But the fact that he doesn’t even necessarily know who he is, combined with his tendency to hallucinate, might make it pretty difficult for him to assist his defense attorney.

Doomsday is, again, probably the best example of an incompetent defendant. In most instantiations he doesn’t even have language, which is going to make it pretty difficult to assist defense counsel.

Note that temporary incompetence isn’t going to work, so someone like Professor X messing with a defendant’s mind to render them temporarily incompetent will probably not be of benefit to anyone. The judge will just keep the defendant in custody until such time as the defendant is competent again, at which point the trial or execution will proceed as planned. So unless Professor X wants to essentially lobotomize the defendant permanently, all this would be good for is stalling. Of course, this could be a pretty clever, if legally shady, delaying tactic if the X-Men just needed a little more time to collect the evidence necessary to prove their case.

III. Conclusion

Competence to stand trial is an increasingly important part of criminal procedure, and super-powered characters may find that it plays out in unexpected ways in their particular cases. But most characters are portrayed in such a way as to make a finding of incompetence rather unlikely.

12 responses to “Supervillains and Competency

  1. If Bruce Banner knows that he can turn into the Incredible Hulk just by getting angry, does he have a responsibility to sequester himself from society to avoid triggering his condition of becoming a public menace?

    • To be fair, Bruce TRIES to sequester himself from society. But pwoplw keep trying to capture or kill him anyway.

  2. Banner has thought that himself at time. In early issues of the comic he built a bunker with a big vault door in the desert and had Rick Jones lock him in supposedly permanently.

  3. Might we drill down a bit more on the Joker, here?

    I don’t think any writer has put it this way, but an argument could be made that the Joker recognizes the roles in play, but is obsessed with refusing and violating authority. If that’s the case, then would his compulsion (hopefully avoiding the lack of support given to “irresistible impulses” suggested in the Insanity Defense article) be seen as impairing his capacity?

    I have to tell you, though, you’re really messing up the Arkhams’ business, here. How does anyone get sent there instead of prison…?

    • Defendants with ODD or conduct disorder move through the criminal justice system every day of the week. Doesn’t affect their competency to stand trial at all. Refusing to cooperate with counsel is not the same thing as being unable to, and “obsession” with resisting authority doesn’t to actually make it okay to resist authority. No, pretty sure the Joker is competent.

    • “I have to tell you, though, you’re really messing up the Arkhams’ business, here. How does anyone get sent there instead of prison…?”

      Just as was the case with the insanity defense, competency to stand trial is, strictly speaking, independent of a medical diagnosis of mental illness (though being severely mentally ill is certainly relevant evidence in both cases). Someone can be competent to stand trial but found “guilty but mentally ill” and placed in psychiatric care during their sentence. Or they can simply be found guilty but still require mental health care unavailable in a regular prison.

  4. This could into the question of what counts as legally human. Any being legally competent to stand trial is something we’d intuitively expect to qualify as human-equivalent. Conversely, if the typical member of a group is never legally competent to stand trial, at any point during a normal lifespan, they’re not likely to be capable of understanding human society either, ruling them out of being human-equivalent.

    This leaves a few special cases – babies, who will presumably be legally competent one day but aren’t yet; Grodd, who isn’t a typical member of his species; Cthulhu, who is intelligent but too alien to understand human law – but it does cover a large chunk of the possibilities, and aligning the tests for various criteria does keep things simpler.

  5. I’m not sure whether Bruce Banner could be considered competent to stand trial. After all, a lively cross-examination could make him angry and result in a gross disruption of the proceedings, not to mention of the courthouse and several surrounding city blocks. So in that sense, he’s not really capable of cooperating with the trial process. So could the case be made that Banner would not be competent to stand trial until he could be cured of his, err, Hulkism?

  6. So his defense attorney has an incentive to get Banner to hulk out on the witness stand during cross-examination to prove his client is not competent to stand trial! Are there any professional-ethics impediments to that strategy?

    • The movie Primal Fear is a good example of this strategy. I’m not an expert on legal procedure, but I don’t believe that once the trial has started you can go back and rehash whether the defendent is competent. Causing Banner to “Hulk out” on the stand though would almost definitely be grounds for a mistrial as the action would be highly prejudicial for the jury. If the state wanted to go through the process of a new trial I think then you could file a motion for a new competency trial. As for a professional ethics violations, it would probably be wise to let opposing council cause the “Hulk out.” Which is likely to happen as lawyers like to go for the kill on cross.

  7. Pingback: The Joker | Law and the Multiverse

  8. Actually, when it comes to a trial on Banner/Hulk, a major problem to me is how you get 12 rational adults to be willing to sit on a jury in the first place.

    Judge: “Does anyone have a compelling reason why they can’t sit on this jury”?

    Me: “Yes your Honor. I value my life so there’s no way in hell I’m going to risk ticking him off by bringing back a guilty verdict even if I’m 100% convinced he did it. Therefore I’m going into this with a predetermined ‘Not guilty by virtue of the fact that I like my head and my body in the same country’.”.

    Might make for an interesting post. How do you get a jury to agree to sit on a trial of some of these villians given that they can level the city they are in, let alone the court room?

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