Rabbi Victor Koltun
Competency has been at issue for three men currently facing murder charges in Orange County. Each has, at some point during his case, been found not competent, and there's a potential for an insanity plea in one or two of the cases.
Thomas Martin, charged with killing his 90-year-old father, Lester Martin, over Thanksgiving 2009 at their Town of Wallkill home, has spent much of the past 21/2 years under psychiatric care. This spring, he was found competent, and his case is moving forward.
Richard Brown, 68, of Middletown, is charged with killing his neighbor, Arthur Twyman; Brown was recently deemed incompetent and was sent to the Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center for treatment until psychiatrists can stabilize him.
Goshen defense lawyer Joseph Brown is representing both Martin and Richard Brown (no relation). He hasn't yet filed a formal notice of intent to present a psychiatric defense in either case, but "there's loads of time," he said.
The process is demanding
"You have to have a doctor, a psychiatrist, come in and testify that at the time the event took place, the defendant was suffering from mental disease or defect and that he couldn't arrive at a decision (of) right or wrong," Brown said. And unless prosecutors concur, "a jury has to hear all the evidence."
Usually, he said, the defendants spend a significant amount of time awaiting trial in secure mental health facilities.
"It's sad. They're tough cases," he said.
Despite Koltun's competency issues, his lawyer, Paul Brite, said an insanity defense is "not on the horizon."
Different legal questions
Competency and insanity are separate legal issues.
To be competent, a defendant must be able to understand the legal proceedings and to assist a lawyer in the defense.
"You can be found not fit to proceed at one moment, and you can still be found responsible for a crime," said Dr. N.G. Berrill, executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioral Science and an adjunct professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The two of them share a relationship, but the one doesn't predict the other."
The competency process is governed in New York by Section 730 of the state Criminal Procedure Law, and it's known well enough to have become part of street slang and part of the arsenal of defendants who think they can use it to delay or avoid trial.
"It's well-noted in all of the psychiatric literature," said Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnwright, "how commonly people will falsify their conduct in an attempt to work out an insanity plea. It happens all the time."
Still, each case must be weighed.
"I think I have a responsibility, if a person has a legitimate psychiatric defense, not to oppose that," Carnwright said.
Sullivan County District Attorney Jim Farrell said he's seeing more and more claims of mental illness, including in rapes and in inmate assaults on correction officers.
The idea that lots of people successfully fake mental illness is one of the most popular misconceptions about competency and the insanity defense, said Berrill. Psychiatrists use a battery of tests to identify the malingerers, and people who are faking generally don't know enough about the illnesses to be convincing.
"They depict an almost comical version," Berrill said. Unobtrusive observation in those cases often reveals "someone who, when they meet with a clinician, acts 'crazy' and says 'crazy' things, but then you see them playing cards and they're winning."
Sifting out malingerers is a crucial skill for forensic psychiatrists, said Dr. Debra Warner, an associate professor of forensic psychology and Los Angeles International Affairs Liaison for The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Illness alone doesn't shape fate
Even well-documented, long-standing illness doesn't guarantee an insanity plea or verdict.
"People forget," Warner said. "You have to be insane at the time of the event."
Insanity defenses aren't common. Out of 357 charged or suspected murder cases in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties since 1988, an insanity defense has been mounted just a handful of times. Eight defendants were found by verdict or plea to be not responsible. In each of those cases the defendant was profoundly ill and floridly psychotic at the time of the killing.
"We have the opportunity, as prosecutors, to have the defendant examined by our own independent psychiatric expert,'" Farrell said. "They cannot refuse."
By Heather Yakin - Times Herald-Record