Back in September, a shooting occurred outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix. It is alleged that a 65-year old man opened fire on a security officer outside the building. One of the three shots fired hit the guard in the chest, but he was wearing a bulletproof vest and was not injured. The guard returned fire, but none of the eight shots he fired struck the man. Eventually, the alleged shooter was arrested and charged assaulting a federal officer with a deadly weapon and firing a gun during a violent crime.
We’ve all heard about insanity as a defense to a crime. That generally involves a determination of whether the defendant could understand the nature of the crime of which he is accused. But when a defendant appears to have mental issues that could affect his ability to stand trial, a different set of standards applies.
Under federal law, specifically 18 U.S.C. § 4241, the defense in a criminal trial may request a hearing to determine the “mental competency” of the defendant. The law goes on to state that if the court finds at the hearing that the defendant has a mental defect or disease the makes him unable properly assist in his defense or to understand the nature and consequences of the charges against him, the defendant shall be ordered to be hospitalized to determine whether he will likely improve to the point that would allow the proceedings to go forward. If no improvement is likely, the defendant will be ordered hospitalized until his mental state improves to the point where he is not a danger to commit bodily injury to another person or serious property damage. The law goes on to deal with a variety of circumstances that may occur during the hospitalization period, including the length of the hospitalization.
In the case of the Phoenix courthouse defendant, the defense pointed to a number of factors that indicated a likelihood that the defendant was mentally unfit to stand trial. Those factors included a history of mental illness, hallucinations, and speaking to people who were not present. During the hearing, the defendant also asked the judge if he were going to be hanged, and whether he would be moved to another facility by boat.
After the hearing, the judge determined that the man was mentally unfit to stand trial. He will be transported to a hospital to determine whether his condition is likely to improve.
Note that state law in Arizona is essentially the same on this issue as the federal law described above. A.R.S. 13-4501(2).
Law Offices of David A. Black
40 North Central Avenue #1850
Phoenix, AZ 85004