Dusky v. United States: Case, Summary & Facts

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Before a defendant can be convicted of a crime, he or she must be competent to stand trial. In this lesson we will look at the standards the Supreme Court set to determine competency.

Should There Be a Trial?

If someone kills another person, often that act in itself seems extreme enough to suggest mental illness. But what if they are diagnosably mentally ill? Do we try them anyway? What if they're faking it? How do we know? These are the issues the Supreme Court dealt with in 1960 in Dusky v. United States.

Facts of the Case

Milton Dusky had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. At 33, he was married with two kids, but he often suffered from hallucinations, morbid preoccupations and severe depression, with a history of alcoholism. A few months earlier, when he was in the Veteran's Hospital, his wife left him for Dusky's brother. On the night before his crime, he drank two pints of vodka and took a handful of tranquilizers. That night he slept in his car because he had been thrown out of his home by his landlady.

The next morning he took two of his son's friends in his car to visit a girl. While traveling, they saw another girl that the younger boys knew, so they stopped and picked her up. They drove her a ways and across the state line into Missouri, where the boys raped her. Dusky attempted to rape her, but couldn't.

The three were captured and arrested. Dusky was soon admitted to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners for a psychological evaluation to see if he was competent to stand trial. One doctor concluded that he was ''oriented to time, place and person'' and thus competent to stand trial. Another doctor, who was a psychologist, found that Dusky was still experiencing ''hallucinations with emergent beliefs that he was being framed.'' His conclusion was that Dusky had schizophrenia and was unable to properly understand the proceedings against him and therefore was not able to assist in his own defense.

Historical Background

There has been a long history of American courts considering a defendant's state of mind at his or her trial. However, the cornerstone of modern insanity defense is an English case that has precedence in American common law, which is a body of laws passed down from previous court decisions of precedence. This was the M'Naghten's Case (1843) where an Englishman went to London to shoot the Prime Minister but shot the Prime Minster's Secretary instead.

He told the constables and the court that he had been told to kill the Prime Minister by the Tories in his hometown who had been persecuting him. The judge instructed the jury that if they believed that the defendant suffered from a ''defect of reason from disease of the mind such that he did not know the nature and quality of the act he was committing,'' they must find him not responsible. This became the M'Naghten rule and was used to determine a person's sanity at the time of the crime. They found him not guilty by reason of mental defect.

In the United States, the first major case to deal with competency was Youtsey v. United States (1899), where the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the defendant's conviction be overturned because the district court judge never considered his epilepsy and whether it rendered him ''incapable of understanding the proceedings and intelligently advising with his counsel as to his defense.''

At the time of M'Naghten, the query into the mental state of a defendant was limited to the time the crime occurred. In the Youtsey case, however, the court examined whether the defendant was competent to stand trial; thus the medical review could look at the defendant's state of mind during the beginning phase of a trial.

Issue and Decision

Back in 1960 in Dusky v. United States, the Supreme Court was asked whether the trial court had properly considered Dusky's competency to stand trial. They held that it had not.

The Court said that the standard used in the trial court was insufficient, and that concluding the ''defendant was oriented to time and place and had some recollection of events'' did not fully address his competency to stand trial. The Court then laid out what would become the test for competency to stand trial for years to come. The Court held that the trial court must determine:

  1. Whether the defendant has ''sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding,'' and
  2. Whether he has ''a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him.''

The Court then remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

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