Amnesia does not necessarily render a defendant incompetent to stand trial

In State v. Decato, the New Hampshire Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of whether a defendant who cannot remember what happened at the time of his alleged crime is competent to stand trial? The Court answered that even though Decato suffered from amnesia and could not remember what he did he was competent to stand trial.

In New Hampshire competency and insanity are two different legal concepts. Insanity is defined in RSA 628:2 and if a defendant is found insane at the time he committed an offense he will be ruled not responsible for his crime. In contrast to competency, whether to raise insanity as a defense is generally up to the defendant in a case and he will bare the burden of proving it at trial.

A defendant must be competent to stand trial for the State to prosecute him for a crime. In State v. Champagne, competency was defined as (1) having a sufficient present ability to consult with and assist one’s lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; and (2) having a factual as well as rational understanding of the proceedings. Generally a defendant’s lawyer will decide whether to raise the issue of competency without regard to the wishes of the defendant. If a defendant is found incompetent the charges against him will be dropped. Regardless of whether one is found not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial, the State may elect to begin a civil proceeding to have the person held in a secured psychiatric hospital for treatment if it can prove his mental illness renders him dangerous.

In Decato, the Court focused on the first competency prong and decided that Decato had the ability to consult with his counsel in a rational way even though he could not remember what he did at the time of the crime. Decato was charged with breaking into a woman’s home and sexually assaulting her. There was DNA evidence and objects belonging to the defendant found in the woman’s home and there were objects from the woman’s home found in the defendant’s possession when he was arrested. Further, the woman gave credible testimony about the horrible ordeal. The Court reasoned that it did not matter whether the defendant could remember what he did in her home in the face of such overwhelming scientific evidence. That is, what the defendant was thinking and what he specifically did in the home would not have helped his defense given the evidence in this case.

While the defendant’s amnesia would not have helped his defense in Decato, there are many other cases in which it is plausible that it would be relevant whether the defendant could remember what he was thinking and did during the commission of an alleged crime. In this scenario a defendant’s amnesia might very well render him incompetent to stand trial and might be a bar to the prosecution.

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