Vanderbilt Law Review

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A defendant's mental competence to stand trial is a fundamental prerequisite to participation in our adversarial system of criminal justice, but proving that this requirement is satisfied presents unique challenges. While an incompetent defendant's inability to comprehend the nature of the proceedings or to assist his attorney challenges the very validity of the adversarial system, most jurisdictions rely on that same adversarial system to resolve questions of competence. These questions about the competence of the defendant and the legitimate scope of the adversarial system all arise in the context of the competency hearing procedure.

The burden of proof in competency hearings has emerged as a salient issue, deeply dividing courts on the constitutional, moral, and policy implications. State supreme courts and the federal circuit courts of appeals have split on whether the due process clause permits states to place the burden of proof in competency hearings on the defendant. Although the issue has been addressed in many opinions, the question is benighted by well-intentioned, but misguided rhetoric. Many courts have tried to address the issue fully; few have realized that the facts of the specific cases before them disguise this chimerical issue's other features. Courts can only undertake a proper analysis of the due process requirements of the burden of proof in competency hearings after competency jurisprudence has been pruned of useless and confusing arguments and addressed with a full understanding of the role competence plays in the adversarial system.

This Note analyzes the limitations that the due process clause places on states in allocating the burden of proof in competency hearings. Part II briefly describes the histories of the competency requirement, the standard of competence to stand trial, and the procedures used in competency decisionmaking. Part III examines in greater detail the development of the burden of proof in competency hearings and introduces the contemporary controversy over the allocation of the burden. Part III closes with a description of People v. Medina, the most recent of the burden of proof decisions, which presents well the arguments for and against a constitutional prohibition against allocating the burden of proof to the defendant. Part IV assesses the arguments against a constitutional requirement that states bear the burden of proof and attempts to free competency jurisprudence from much of the confusing rhetoric which characterizes the case law. Part V assesses the arguments for such a constitutional requirement, undertakes a due process analysis of the burden of proof, and discusses the role of social values in allocating the risk of error between litigants in the criminal justice process. Part V concludes that because of the value society places on competence, due process requires that the State bear the burden of proof in competency hearings.

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