Is Casey Anthony Crazy? The Legal Issue of Mental Incompetency and the Defense of Insanity

The Casey Anthony trial continues to do its excellent job of educating the American public on nuances in the legalities that apply to us all - and of which many citizens are not aware.   This weekend, there was the review of Casey Anthony's mental condition after the defense moved on Saturday morning for psychological evaluations of their client.

Seems that two forensic psychologists and one psychiatrist spent time with Casey Anthony over the weekend, and this morning, based upon their opinions, the trial continues.  She wasn't found mentally incompetent by the experts.  Sure enough, all the talking heads are spending the day discussing incompetency - not only the circumstances of why and when this happened in the Casey Anthony trial, as well as what "incompetency" means overall.

Incompetency is an Issue Many of Us With Face at Some Point

It's difficult for the law to draw lines on where an individual has a mental illness or deficiency sufficient for the courts to intervene in their freedoms.  And judges are asked to makes these calls every day - legal incompetency is an issue that millions of Americans have had to face - either from themselves, or for loved ones.

Personally, I've seen the difficulties of a probate judge determining whether or not an elderly person needs to have a guardian of the person or a guardian of their estate, or both -- particularly when that elder does not want someone else making personal care decisions or taking control over their finances.  Legally incompetent ruling, and that elder loses their control over their lives and/or their money. 

I've also seen the state seeking to terminate the parental rights of a parent for their child because the parent is mentally incapable of caring for a child.  Testing is done, opinions are given and then, no matter how much that parent loves their baby, their right to parent is legally ended. 

And, yes the government can do that.  Being a mother or father isn't an absolute right: the government can take your child from you.

Hopefully, there's a family member who steps in, taking on the role of parent.  If not, that child goes into foster care because the court has found that it's in the best interests of that child to be with foster parent caretakers than their mentally incompetent bio parent. 

Being mentally unable at a sufficient level to take care of yourself or another person usually means that it's obvious.  Elderly parents with dementia need guardianships.  Paranoid schizophrenic mothers may need help to care for their babies. 

Sometimes, it's a close call and there may be an expert fight in a courtroom, because experts disagree on the competency of someone.  Those are the hard cases for the judges, when the experts don't jive on the psychological status of the individual. 

So, if Casey Anthony seems strange because she is so stoic at the defense table and then something bizarre happened on Friday (who knows what), then it was the right call for the attorneys to get evaluations of her mental competency.  Here, the question is whether or not Casey Anthony is competent to assist her attorneys in her defense. 

Maybe she had a psychotic break, maybe something else happened.  It was their duty to do so - and it was the judge's duty to stop everything until that issue of competency was resolved. 

Their issue would be akin to one where a probate judge was being asked for a guardianship: is she legally competent? 

Here in Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals has explained why her legally competency is important - it involves not only (1) the right to effective counsel, but also to (2) the right to due process as well as (3) the right to be present at her criminal trial, all federal constitutional protections:

The requirement that a criminal defendant be competent to consult with counsel is not based only on the right to the assistance of counsel. Another right is the presumption of innocence, which is guarantied by the Due Process Clause.22 Requiring that a criminal defendant be competent to be tried preserves the presumption of innocence by ensuring that a criminal defendant can help the defense attorney defend the client.23 A defendant must be able to assist trial counsel because often the defendant possesses the only information that may cast doubt on the State’s case. If a defendant is incompetent, we cannot be sure that the defendant can communicate to counsel the facts necessary to mount an effective defense. It also has been said that the requirement of competence is a byproduct of the rule requiring that a defendant be present at trial, since a trial of an incompetent defendant is virtually a trial in absentia.24 The right to be present is largely based on the Confrontation Clause, although it also has a due process component.25

Legal Insanity is a Legal Defense to a Criminal Charge

Mentally incompetency is not the same as being legally insane.  Legal insanity is a defense to a criminal charge that's defined by the state law. Here is how it's defined under Florida law:

775.027  Insanity defense.

(1)  AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE.--All persons are presumed to be sane. It is an affirmative defense to a criminal prosecution that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant was insane. Insanity is established when:
(a)  The defendant had a mental infirmity, disease, or defect; and
(b)  Because of this condition, the defendant:
1.  Did not know what he or she was doing or its consequences; or
2.  Although the defendant knew what he or she was doing and its consequences, the defendant did not know that what he or she was doing was wrong.

Mental infirmity, disease, or defect does not constitute a defense of insanity except as provided in this subsection.
(2)  BURDEN OF PROOF.--The defendant has the burden of proving the defense of insanity by clear and convincing evidence.

Casey Anthony has not asserted the affirmative defense of legal insanity.  FYI, prosecutor Jeff Ashton participated in the creation of the Jury Instructions for Legal Insanity as approved by the Florida Supreme Court.