BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Idaho is one of four states in which a person’s mental condition cannot be used as a defense against a criminal charge.
This leads to the process of restoring a defendant’s competency to stand trial after they are declared mentally unfit, something that has happened in several high-profile cases, including the upcoming Lori Daybell murder trial.
It also can lead to charges essentially being dropped if there is no possible way to restore a person’s competency, something that happened recently in a Canyon County case involving a fatal shooting.
Ross Edmunds, an administrator at the Department of Health and Welfare, talked to the Idaho Statesman about the process in a state that does not allow for an insanity defense.
“It’s quite rare that we find somebody not restorable to competency,” Edmunds said. “But people with an extremely low IQ may never be able to understand who the judge is, what their job is or who their attorney is.”
But is it that easy to “restore” someone’s competence?
Edmunds said the key often is proper medication for defendants, but there are other factors, such as therapy, education and daily activities.
Edmunds told the Statesman that people charged with a crime obviously have a right to participate in the court process. If a defendant’s mental status prohibits that, a judge can order a competency evaluation. The Department of Health and Welfare conducts these evaluations, a process in which a psychiatrist or psychologist examines the mental condition of a defendant.
Dr. Tanisha Keith, the chief of psychology at State Hospital South in Blackfoot, told the Statesman that people deemed mentally incompetent show a wide range of symptoms and issues.
“When a defendant’s symptoms are significantly impacting their mood, thinking, speech, behavior, etc., to the point that they would be unable to demonstrate an ability to consult with their attorney, understand the legal proceedings and/or make rational decisions about their case, those symptoms would generally render the defendant not competent to proceed with their case at that time,” Keith said in an email.
Depending on the results of the evaluation, a defendant could be ordered to undergo competency restoration and receive treatment in a hospital setting, something that can take time and delay cases — as happened with Lori Daybell, who is accused in the killing of two of her children, among other crimes.
WHAT IS IDAHO’S COMPETENCY RESTORATION PROCESS?
Idaho lawmakers abolished the insanity defense in 1982 after 25-year-old John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., in 1981. In one of the most famous cases involving mental health, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982.
The states besides Idaho that do not allow a plea based on mental disease or defect are Kansas and neighboring states Montana and Utah.
In other neighboring states, such as Washington and Wyoming, a defendant may claim that they suffered from a mental illness or disorder at the time of the crime. If they are successful with an insanity plea, they will wind up in a mental health facility for treatment rather than in prison.
Under Idaho code, a person deemed mentally unfit to stand trial must be committed to a treatment facility with Health and Welfare for no more than 90 days at first. The agency has a psychiatric hospital in Orofino in addition to the one in Blackfoot.
Keith, who regularly works with patients in Blackfoot, said patients have access to therapy groups on topics such as stress management, coping with loss and relapse prevention. She said patients are offered daily recreational activities as well, including yoga, arts and crafts, and music group.
Patients meet with their assigned clinician and medication provider at least once a week, and they must participate in a weekly legal education group, which involves completing a competency restoration workbook and regularly meeting with a forensic psychologist in preparation for their evaluation.
Keith said one of the biggest challenges people face is seeing a pause in their legal proceedings.
“Patients are often frustrated by their inability to work on the case with their attorney while in treatment, as they feel it impedes their ability to resolve the case in a timely manner,” she said. If at the end of the first 90 days a defendant is found to still not be competent, a new order may be issued for an additional 180 days in treatment.
If by the end of both orders a judge decides that competency has not been restored, a court order can be entered for a civil commitment.
Once a person is found competent to stand trial, they are transferred from the psychiatric institution back to the jail in the county where they were arrested.
Edmunds said it sometimes happens that a defendant will have competency restored, return to jail and then have to undergo the whole process again.
“Imagine the difference in the environment,” he said. “You’re at a hospital with us. You’re around nurses and behavioral health experts, and now all of a sudden you’re back into a jail cell. So it’s not uncommon for someone to decompensate again.”
Edmunds said there are typically two groups of defendants who undergo the competency restoration process: those with developmental disabilities and those with mental illnesses.
Between 2021 and 2022, Edmunds said there were 595 patients in the mental illness category admitted for restoration to competency. Of that group, 516 of them returned to the justice system, while the remaining patients stayed in care at the Department of Health and Welfare or went to outpatient services and residential care.
People with a mental illness can almost always be restored to competency when properly medicated, he said. That is not the case for someone with a developmental disorder or a problem such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. That was the case in a fatal Canyon County shooting where the defendant’s dementia forced charges to be dismissed.
Edmunds also said a developmentally disabled defendant, such as someone who is nonverbal, might never be able to contribute to their own defense, which would mean they simply cannot be restored to competency.