A Question of Competence
Dr. Lishan Wang doesn’t want to be forced to take medication. His mind is clear. He is prepared to represent himself at trial against the charge of murder. He wrote all this and more in a recent letter to the New Haven Register. He complains that the folks at the Whiting Forensic Institute in Middletown, where he is being held, are abusing him.
The good doctor was arrested on April 26, 2010, on charges he murdered a colleague, Dr. Vajinder Toor, in Branford that very day. He’s fought for, and won, the right to represent himself in the criminal court. And he’s littered the court file with motions that make little or no sense.
It was hardly surprising the Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Keefe found Dr. Wang incompetent to stand trial at a hearing a couple of weeks ago. The judge held open the possibility that Dr. Wang could be forced to take medication to restore him to competency.
Dr. Wang objects to be being medicated against his will. “I need help from the outside world to fight this injustice of ‘trial with medication’ and ‘mental torture,’” he writes. “I just want the case to move forward without this ‘competency nonsense,’” he intones.
“The illegal medication will compromise my mental status and my capability to testify or cross-examine the witnesses at the trial,” he continues.
As a matter of due process and fundamental fairness, individuals who either do no understand the nature of the proceedings against them or are incapable of assisting in their own defense do not stand trial. The reason for this is that the person accused lacks the ability to comprehend what is happening to him. A quasi-moral dimension to the law teaches respect for persons — at a minimum, a defendant must be able to meaningfully participate in trial.
Thus, a person found incompetent can be medicated back to sanity. It’s a counterintuitive notion, really: we invade a person’s physical autonomy, forcing medication on them, so that they can then be tried for a crime.
But any criminal lawyer can tell you story after story of clients who insisted on a reckless, even self-destructive, course of conduct, yet no one ever questioned their competence.
Criminal defense lawyers develop a close, even sublime, acquaintance with the irrational. Lawyers advise; clients decide. It helps to remember this simple truth: You can lead a client to the courthouse, but you can’t make him think. You just can’t.
I can’t help but wonder whether Dr. Wang is getting privileged treatment because of his status as a doctor. Criminal practitioners know a truth rarely spoken outside the bar: many of the folks standing accused of crimes have ideas so unusual, typically about themselves and their relationship to the rest of the world, as to be bizarre. The community of reasonable minds is a limited access group.
Dr. Wang’s ideas, though unusual, hardly mark him as an outlier. Walk the corridors of any criminal court in one of the state’s larger cities — New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford, Stamford, New London — and you will see plenty of folks with ideas about themselves and their place in the world that make little sense.
But these folks are routinely found to be competent.
The standard for competency is perishingly low.
A typical competency examination asks whether a defendant understands the different roles in a courtroom. Yes, an examinee might answer: the judge enforces the rules; the prosecutor tries to convict me; my lawyer tries to defend me. Does the defendant understand the charges against him? Yes, the state accuses me of shooting someone to death.
Dr. Wang gets all this, or so it seems: were he some impecunious soul living off the radar, odds are he would not be sitting at Whiting. More likely, he’d have been whisked off to trial, convicted, and then to jail, where many mentally ill inmates languish without adequate care.
Lawyers involved in a case have the responsibility to make a motion for a competency exam when they have good reason to doubt that a defendant is competent. But it is a treacherous thing to do. Make a motion challenging your client’s competence, and lose that motion, and the attorney-client relationship is forever transformed, and colored by suspicion.
What about clients who are just plain odd? How weird must a person be to be incompetent?
One of my favorite film scenes comes from the “Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy has just tossed a pail of water onto the Wicked Witch of the West. As the witch dissolves, she moans: “What a world! What a world!” I hear the witch’s lament more times that I care to admit as I listen to bizarre, irrational, and sometimes nonsensical explanations of conduct, or excuses for breaking the law, or justifications for a bad act.
I can’t fathom what Dr. Wang thinks his defense is. He may not have one. It may be that he will never the share the place the rest of us call normal. He may always believe in some massive conspiracy of malefactors out to get him, and him alone.
Perhaps he truly is incompetent, but, if he is, so are all sorts of other people forced to trial despite their bizarre ideas and pig-headed determination to star in a self-destructive drama of their own creation.
Whether Dr. Wang ever goes to trial is not the point. The point is why are so many other people as odd or odder than the good doctor going to trial? Why do we prosecute the ill and call it justice?
“What a world,” the witch cries out. What a world, indeed.