How do you know a person is mentally competent? How can we ever be sure a person who has a history of mental illness is competent enough to stand trial or to enter a plea agreement?
There is no easy answer, of course. A plea agreement in a Wake County case illustrates this all too clearly. At times, it seems the best the justice system can do is to make sure the rules allow a defendant or a defendant’s attorney to argue the point, to present evidence to the court that someone charged with a crime has a history of instability and may not understand what he or she has done.
The defendant in this case fatally shot her husband almost seven years ago. They had been divorced for a few years, and her husband had sole custody of their children; the court granted him custody because the judge had misgivings about the defendant’s mental stability. Over the next few years, her husband filed for a number of orders for protection. By the time he agreed to meet her with the children in a Raleigh park in March 2006, she had not seen the kids for 15 months.
She fired one shot. Aiming at his abdomen, she intentionally avoided his kidney area — he had had a kidney transplant — and shot him in the spleen instead. She explained to the court later that she only meant to send her ex-husband a warning. She did not mean to kill him.
But he died, and she was charged with murder. The issue of fitness to stand trial came up immediately.
To be continued.
Source: Raleigh News & Observer, “Wake County woman pleads guilty to second-degree murder of her ex-husband” Anne Blythe, Feb. 14, 2013