Defendant without a Prayer

Photo © Fieryphoenix |

A SKILLED, dedicated criminal defense attorney sits alone with his client in a dreary jailhouse holding cell. The defendant is charged with a serious felony and, unfortunately for her, the prosecution’s evidence of guilt in this case is overwhelming.

The accomplished lawyer does his best to communicate to his hapless client that, despite diligent legal preparation and expert pre-trial advocacy, her prospects at trial are dreadful. The State’s Attorney has graciously made a plea offer that is substantially superior to any sentence the judge is sure to impose following a guilty verdict. Upon advising his client to accept the State’s offer, as it is clearly in her best interest, the defendant responds with a troubling and all-too-familiar refrain, “God will deliver me from this.” Further discussion reveals that the client believes herself to be in dialogue with an all-powerful celestial being, and that she has been assured of divine favor at trial. The client is otherwise coherent, rational, and cooperative. Yet it’s obvious to the seasoned attorney that his client’s decision to reject the State’s charitable offer is wildly imprudent, and he immediately begins to ponder a vexing dilemma: Does a criminal defendant’s decision to proceed to trial based primarily on religious delusions render her unfit?

How should the criminal justice system respond to an individual who sincerely believes that he or she receives infallible advice and earthly intervention from a religious deity? This sort of appeal to a higher power is not uncommon among criminal defendants, particularly those who are up against the greatest odds. While this blatant irrationality is profoundly frustrating in and of itself, it is the criminal justice system’s response to this madness (or lack thereof) that is most infuriating.

Mentally incompetent persons are protected from criminal prosecution and sentencing by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This well-established legal principle provides a safeguard for the mentally deficient and the flagrantly irrational from the powerful and harsh American criminal justice system. In many jurisdictions the notion of competency is commonly referred to as “fitness.” Requiring that criminal defendants be mentally fit before they are prosecuted strengthens the integrity of our courts by helping to ensure both fair trials and just, humane treatment of the accused.

Half a century ago the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Dusky v. U.S. that in order for a defendant to be considered competent to stand trial, he or she must have a “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding” and possess “a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” With their holdings in Dusky and its progeny, the Court’s requirement is clear: all criminal courts in the nation must ensure that defendants possess an understanding of the proceedings against them that is based in fact, logic, and reason. If there are doubts about a defendant’s competency, the trial judge must halt the prosecution and make a reasonable inquiry into the matter. If it is shown by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant is unfit, he or she may not be held to trial.

In 1996 the Supreme Court held in Cooper v. Oklahoma that a state court standard—which presumed a defendant to be competent to stand trial unless he or she proved incompetence by clear and convincing evidence—violated constitutional due process because such an overly strict standard would allow defendants to be tried, convicted, and sentenced even if it were established that the defendant was more likely than not incompetent. Moreover, the Court stated in Cooper that a defendant’s fundamental right to be tried only while competent outweighs the state’s interest in efficient operation of its criminal justice system.

It is clearly important to America’s highest court that no citizen be prosecuted unless and until he or she has made a rational decision to plead guilty or not guilty and demand trial. If there are any indications that a criminal defendant is delusional, the issue of mental fitness should be occasioned by the defendant herself, her attorney, the prosecution, or the judge as soon as that information becomes known during the course of a criminal proceeding. Once a bonafide doubt about a defendant’s fitness is raised, the court must make an informed determination of the issue before proceeding further. This most often requires an examination of the defendant by a licensed clinical psychologist.

A defendant, as the Supreme Court has rightly determined, is “unfit” if she possesses an irrational belief about the consequences of proceeding to trial. For example, if a defendant were to maintain that she was certain of being acquitted at trial because Elvis had told her so, that individual would be deemed unfit and the prosecution would be halted until the defendant could be restored to competence through counseling and medication. Sadly and inexplicably, religious and spiritually based supernatural legal advisers are exempt from the same scrutiny as other delusions.

The Illinois case of People v. Reginald Mahaffey is an example of a state criminal court’s failure to identify religiously based hallucinations as a clear indication of unfitness. Mahaffey was arrested and prosecuted in Cook County, Illinois, for the 1983 murders of Jo Ellen and Dean Pueschel and the attempted murder of their son, Richard. In addition to the fact that Mahaffey showed cognitive impairment and signs of antisocial personality disorder, he was also experiencing elaborate religious delusions. Before the case went to trial Mahaffey’s attorney moved the trial judge for a hearing to determine whether or not the defendant was fit. Pursuant to proper procedure, Mahaffey was examined by at least three mental health experts, who concluded that he understood the charges against him and the purpose of the jury, judge, and attorneys. Mahaffey was oriented, alert, and cooperative. It was, however, clear that he was preoccupied with religious themes. At one point during the examination process, Mahaffey declared that he was certain he would be found not guilty because of his religious beliefs. One expert testified at the fitness hearing that the defendant’s religious delusions were manifestations of a condition known as organic delusional disorder.

The trial court ultimately ruled that despite Mahaffey’s pathological religious beliefs and assertion that he could not be convicted based upon his faith, he was indeed fit to stand trial. Despite overwhelming evidence against him, including a confession, Mahaffey decided to plead not guilty and represented himself in the jury trial. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

During another criminal prosecution, defendant Earl Jones, who was also representing himself at trial, proclaimed to the jury during his opening statement, “God is my witness … I am a child of God; I am a son of God … anyone who is accusing me of this crime will be guilty of blasphemy of the Holy Ghost.” Despite these wild and clearly delusional assertions the court did not stop the proceedings to conduct a competency hearing. The trial continued and Jones was convicted. An appellate court upheld the trial judge’s decision not to hold a competency hearing.

In the case of People v. Thomas, one of three armed robbery defendants, James Felder, professed to the court at his arraignment that his attorney was “the Lord God of Israel.” During his trial Felder testified that his actions were directed by God, with whom he communicated regularly. Felder’s appointed counsel, a public defender, asked the court to conduct a hearing as to his client’s fitness based on the fact that the defendant was experiencing religious hallucinations. The motion was inexplicably denied. On appeal it was determined that the trial court should have held a hearing on the issue of Felder’s fitness, as doubts clearly arose about his competence. Unfortunately, this sort of judicial indifference to religiously centered psychosis seems to be shockingly common.

Not only do judges routinely ignore clear indications of a defendant’s unfitness stemming from religious convictions, many actually encourage such theological indulgence. It would not be uncommon for the following exchange to take place on the record in a serious criminal prosecution:

Judge: Ms. Smith, you have been made aware of your rights, and you have had the benefit of legal counsel to advise you. Is it your decision to proceed to trial?
Ms. Smith: Your Honor, I have put my fate in the hands of the Lord, as only he can judge me. I want a trial.
Judge: That is very admirable, Ms. Smith. This case will proceed to trial Monday.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that religious groups target desperate populations, including the criminally accused. U.S. jails and prisons continue to allow religious zealots to enter into their facilities, engage privately with inmates, and hold group meetings and services. A simple Internet search reveals dozens of religious organizations aimed at proselytizing to incarcerated citizens. No doubt, religiously based organizations do vast amounts of good in the lives of many criminal defendants, both in and out of custody, by providing comfort, support, education, and rehabilitative services. However, many of these faith groups overtly state that celestial forces can and will directly impact the lives and legal cases of criminal defendants. A review of their websites and mission statements explains why many of their followers profess that “God has a plan” for them, or that they have “won divine favor.”

While religious freedom is a cornerstone of U.S. constitutional rights, the law requires that we take precautions against trying, convicting, and sentencing individuals who suffer from delusions—religious or otherwise.

Surely, in a just society all people must enjoy the freedom to follow whatever doctrine they so choose so long as it isn’t impeding anyone else’s freedom to do the same. However, a person brought to criminal prosecution who believes that his or her case will be decided by God and not a jury presents us with a familiar dilemma: what to do when an individual’s irrational religious beliefs run afoul of rationally set societal standards and laws. May a person cultivate and ingest illegal substances if so prescribed by their religious tradition? May parents who reject modern medicine on religious grounds deprive their children of critical treatment? May a young person facing murder charges reject a plea offer and proceed to trial based upon a delusional conversation with the Almighty?

The answer to these questions, for most people, tends to turn on the issue of harming others. You’d be hard pressed to find a sane person who thinks sacrificing virgins to appease a deity is permissible. Most accept that the pious may not deny their children necessary medical care. The abortion debate aside, very few believe that individuals should be restricted in their ability to subscribe to whichever canons of faith they choose, so long as those beliefs don’t endanger the lives of others. This delineation of harm to others versus self perhaps explains why so many judges fail to raise bonafide doubts about a criminal defendant’s fitness when the individual makes life-altering legal decisions based on conversations with an invisible religious figure. However, this judicial inaction in the face of clear legal incompetence is not consistent with compassionate, civilized treatment of the criminally accused or with the law.

The United States, through its courts and laws, has set a standard for mental competence of the criminally accused. If a defendant claims to have received a communication from a religious deity guaranteeing them divine favor at trial, the proceeding should be immediately halted until such time as that person can be restored to mental fitness. However, the appropriate implementation of these guidelines depends upon honorable trial judges. Until these magistrates are universally capable of overcoming their own tendency to excuse religious delusions as an acceptable form of irrationality and follow the law as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, many criminal defendants will be going to trial without a prayer.