Houston Chronicle

Aug. 8, 2001, 8:16PM

Incompetence, insanity very different terms

Houston Chronicle

The capital murder case of Andrea Pia Yates raises questions about confusing, similar-sounding but legally very different terms about incompetency and insanity.

Here are some questions and answers about this legal terminology:

Q: What is the difference between incompetency and insanity?

A: Both have to do with the mental state or capabilities of a defendant.

Incompetency refers to whether a defendant is capable of understanding and aiding in his defense. Insanity refers to whether a defendant will be held criminally responsible for his actions.

Q: If a defendant claims to be both incompetent and insane, which one does a court determine first?

A: Incompetency must be determined first. A defendant can't be tried to determine insanity unless he is first found competent to stand trial.

Q: How does a court decide whether a defendant is incompetent to stand trial?

A: A hearing is held before a jury. In the case of Yates, the jury will hear from the court-appointed psychologist who has reported she is competent to stand trial.

Her lawyers are also likely to call other mental health experts and present other evidence that would indicate she cannot aid in her defense. Prosecutors will likewise try to prove to the jury that Yates can participate.

Q: If a defendant is found incompetent to stand trial, what happens next?

A: The jury will be asked whether the defendant, if incompetent, is likely to become competent in the future. If the jury finds the defendant is likely to some day be able to aid in his defense, the defendant would probably be committed to a mental health institution until that time.

If the jury finds a defendant hopelessly incompetent, that defendant would likely be institutionalized for an indeterminate amount of time, with the court making periodic checks on his status.

Q: How common is it for defendants to claim they are incompetent or insane?

A: It is very unusual for a defendant to claim either incompetency or insanity, said Neil McCabe, a South Texas College of Law professor and criminal law expert. He said that when the state contests these claims, as it is expected to in the Yates case, it is unlikely that a defendant will be found incompetent or insane. The defendant has the burden of proving both claims and they usually fail, McCabe said.

Q: What is the difference between pleading not guilty and pleading not guilty by reason of insanity?

A: "Not guilty" says the defendant did not do what he is accused of doing.

But a defendant who says he is "not guilty by reason of insanity" says he should not be held responsible for the act because he was insane at the time. A defendant pleading insanity does not admit to committing the crime, but simply does not contest that he or she did it.

Q: If a defendant doesn't contest they did the deed, why have a trial?

A: Because there is a difference under Texas law between committing an act that can be considered a crime and being criminally responsible for it. The jury's main job in such cases is to determine whether the defendant was responsible for what they did.

Q: How does someone show they were legally insane and shouldn't be held responsible?

A: A defendant must show that at the time the crime was committed, he suffered a mental illness severe enough to prevent him from determining right from wrong.

People accused of crimes are presumed to be sane just like they are presumed to be innocent. Just like prosecutors have to prove people guilty, a defendant claiming insanity has to prove he was insane. The defendant has the burden of proof to convince the jury.

Q: What happens if a jury finds the defendant was insane at the time of the offense and is not guilty?

A: It depends whether the judge decides that the defendant is still insane at the time of the verdict. If a judge finds the defendant is still insane, the person is committed to an institution for the mentally ill and periodically reviewed.

If a judge determines that also though the accused person was insane at the time of the crime, they are no longer insane, that person walks free.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle