Cases show importance of competency evaluations

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Nico Savidge
Friday, September 27, 2013

JANESVILLE—Unlike the rest of the documents in Terrance P. Robinson's case file, a July doctor's evaluation is off-limits to the public.

“SEALED RECORD—Not to be opened except by a court order,” a stamp reads on a closed yellow envelope holding the report at the Rock County Courthouse.

Known as a competency evaluation, the report is meant to gauge if Robinson, a 58-year-old Clinton man, is fit to stand trial for a charge of attempted murder. It's open to Robinson's attorney, prosecutors and a judge—but no one else.

Under Wisconsin statutes, a defendant is not competent if he cannot understand the court proceedings or is unable to assist in his defense.

A number of high-profile cases in recent months have placed a spotlight on the evaluation system, as attorneys raise questions about their clients' competency for reasons including mental illness and traumatic brain injury.

In one of them, Daniel Bellard, a 75-year-old town of Plymouth man charged with fatally shooting his neighbor, will have a hearing on his competency next week.

Existing at the crossroads of the medical and legal systems, as Mendota Mental Health Institute Director Greg Van Rybroek put it, the evaluations are meant to assess if someone is capable of standing trial.

“They need to understand the process that they're in,” Van Rybroek said. “It's a constitutional issue.”

Defendants need to understand the basics of their case—who the judge and prosecutor are, for instance, and what punishments they could face if convicted, Van Rybroek said.

“You don't have to have a law degree, but you do have to understand how the legal system works,” he said.

The process often begins with defense attorneys, who assistant public defender Walter Isaacson said are told to notify the court if they think their client doesn't understand the process.

In Walworth County Court last week, an attorney for Larry Shannon, a Whitewater man charged with attempted murder and sexual assault of young girls, asked the court for a competency evaluation after noticing issues in his conversations with Shannon.

A judge granted that request at a hearing Wednesday, and scheduled an evaluation for Shannon.

Most evaluations take place on an out-patient basis, with psychologists or psychiatrists from the Wisconsin Forensic Unit conducting interviews with defendants in their homes or, often, at the local jail if they're in custody, director Deborah Collins said.

In tougher cases, however, those evaluations have to happen in an in-patient setting at one of the state's two mental health facilities in Madison and Winnebago.

At Mendota, Van Rybroek said, patients typically are kept at the secure facility for a couple of weeks as a collection of experts observe and interview them to gauge their competency.

Doctors then submit their conclusions in a sealed report such as the one in Robinson's file. The occasionally are called to testify at competency hearings.

In most cases, defendants are found competent to proceed, Van Rybroek said. Defendants found not competent often become competent over time through education or treatment of mental illnesses.

In rare instances, descendants are found not competent and not likely to ever become competent—often because of developmental disabilities or brain injuries, he said.

Although doctors can offer opinions, the decisions rest with judges, who aren't bound by the doctor's conclusions.

Asking for a competency evaluation essentially puts a case on hold until a determination is made.

If a defendant is found competent, the case against can proceed. If not, the defendant will likely enter the civil commitment process, Isaacson said.

“It's not a get-out-of-jail free (card),” Isaacson said.

The doctor's report in Robinson's case found he was competent, though the court earlier this month ordered another evaluation.

Assessments are only meant to gauge someone's mental state during the case, Isaacson said, not their mental condition at the instant the crime was committed.

That question comes into play if a defendant pleads not guilty due to mental disease or defect—as Robinson has.

“The concept behind the competency is that it has to be a level playing field,” Isaacson said. “If the person really can't assist council or understand what's going on or make a rational decision, the law wouldn't be treating him fairly.”

Last updated: 7:40 am Saturday, September 28, 2013

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