When Dealing With Incompetent Defendants In a Criminal Case

Posted by Tab Lawhorn | Jun 21, 2023 | 0 Comments

When dealing with incompetent defendants in a criminal case, several issues can arise. Competency refers to an individual's mental capacity to understand the nature and
consequences of the criminal proceeds against them and to assist in their own defense. In
Texas, the issue of incompetent defendants poses unique hurdles for attorneys striving to
uphold justice.

Legal Challenges

1. Assessing Competence: Determining whether a defendant is competent to stand trial is a
crucial step in the legal process. Attorneys face the challenge of obtaining comprehensive
evaluations from mental health professionals to establish a defendant's competency. This requires access to qualified experts who can conduct thorough assessments and provide
unbiased opinions. However, limited resources and time constraints can hinder the attorney's
ability to present a robust defense.
2. Legal Standards: In Texas, the legal standard for competency is established by state statutes and court precedents. Attorneys must navigate complex legal frameworks to ensure their clients' rights are protected. Understanding the nuances of these standards is crucial in
advocating for an incompetent defendant. However, the ever-evolving legal landscape can be
demanding for attorneys to keep up with.
3. Competency Restoration: If a defendant is deemed incompetent, the goal becomes restoring their competency to stand trial. However, securing appropriate mental health treatment and services can be a challenge. The availability of resources, such as psychiatric facilities or specialized treatment programs, may vary across different regions of Texas, further
complicating the process.

Ethical Considerations

1. Attorney-Client Relationship: Attorneys have an ethical duty to act in their clients' best
interests, including those who are incompetent. Balancing the obligation to zealously represent their clients while considering their mental state can be ethically challenging. Attorneys must navigate the fine line between advocating for their clients' rights and ensuring their well-being.
2. Confidentiality and Privilege: Communication between attorneys and incompetent defendants must be safeguarded by attorney-client privilege. Ensuring open and confidential
discussions becomes critical when representing individuals with mental health issues. Attorneys must maintain trust and confidentiality while working within legal boundaries.

Collaboration and Support

1. Multidisciplinary Approach: Attorneys handling cases involving incompetent defendants can
benefit from collaboration with mental health professionals. Establishing partnerships with forensic psychologists or psychiatrists can provide valuable insights and assistance in navigating the complexities of the legal and mental health systems.
2. Continuing Legal Education: Staying informed about changes in legislation, case law, and
mental health practices is essential for attorneys representing incompetent defendants.

Engaging in ongoing professional development, attending relevant conferences, and
participating in legal forums can help attorneys enhance their knowledge and stay abreast of
best practices.

Representing incompetent defendants in criminal cases presents unique challenges for
attorneys in Texas. From assessing competence and understanding legal standards to
addressing ethical considerations, the process demands a delicate balance of legal advocacy
and mental health awareness. Overcoming these hurdles requires collaboration, support from
mental health professionals, and a commitment to staying informed about evolving legal and
mental health landscapes. By ensuring competent representation, attorneys play a crucial role
in upholding justice and protecting the rights of all defendants, including those with mental
health issues.

About the Author

Tab Lawhorn

Attorney, Tyler Office Tab E. Lawhorn is a principal partner at Lawhorn & Malouf, PLLC in Tyler, Texas. Mr. Lawhorn represents clients in Tyler and throughout Smith County who are victims of a personal injury caused by negligence. He regularly handles matters involving car wrecks, trucking accidents, wrongful death and premises liability.


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