Movie Nuts Essay

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Competent to Stand Trial

The 1987 film Nuts is a film portrayal of a true story about a woman from a well-to-do family who becomes a high priced hooker and is charged with first degree manslaughter when she kills a violent customer (aka a "John"). Ostensibly in an effort to protect their daughter (and themselves) from the public embarrassment of a trial, the woman's parents encourage therapeutic institutional intervention. In the hearing to determine the woman's ability to stand trial, the woman, stunningly played by Barbara Streisand, insists that she is sane and fights -- quite literally -- for her right to stand trial. A reluctant court appointed attorney -- played by Richard Dreyfus -- eventually comes to believe that his client is sane and able to contribute to her own defense -- he is able to work past her pugnacious exterior and comes to understand and support her in his beliefs and in his trenchant legal defense. Two psychiatrists have declared the woman incompetent, and she refuses to submit to any additional psychiatric testing (which would constitute a third chance at strengthening her position that she is perfectly able to stand trial). During the hearing, the defendant's attorney conducts such penetrating cross-examinations that the hearing judge aligns his opinion of the testifying psychiatrists with the woman whose competency is being examined. This brief paper will discuss several relevant legal definitions, legal standards, states of mind, and time frames as presented in the film, and through a review of the literature.

Relevant Legal Definitions

Competency to stand trial. The test for competency goes beyond a defendant being oriented to time and place and having some recollection of events (Roesch, et al., 2004: 1). The test for competency is whether the defendant is, at present, sufficiently able to consult with an attorney in a manner that demonstrates a reasonable level of understanding and has a factual and rational understanding of the charges brought against him (Roesch, et al., 2004: 1).

One school of thought is that the psycholegal abilities of a defendant must be considered in context. Forensic psychologists with this perspective argue that whether a defendant shows evidence of severe disturbance should be considered a threshold issue. The more important concern in a contextual determination is whether the severe disturbance in this particular defendant who is facing specific charges based on existing evidence -- and anticipating the substantial effort and relationship characteristics of the attorney for the case -- creates a situation in which the defendant is unable to rationally assist his attorney or is unable to comprehend the nature of the proceedings and the likely outcome of those proceedings (Roesch, 2004:79)

The Supreme Court, however, does not uphold a contextual determination of competency to stand trial, instead arguing that there must be only one standard of competency regardless of the psycholegal skills required of a defendant in any given trial. A defendant who is found incompetent to stand trial is held in a mental institution until such time as they may be found competent, the test of which happens at regular intervals determined by statute until the decision is made that the person's condition is highly unlikely to change.

Insanity. The standard for a plea of cognitive insanity is that the defendant must not have known the nature or quality of the act because of mental impairment or defect at the time that act was committed. Or, if the defendant did know the act was wrong even if he or she understood the nature and quality of the act. Volitional insanity (irresistible impulse) is another form of insanity said to occur when a defendant is able to distinguish right from wrong, but became incapable of controlling his or her actions due to mental disease or defect. Generally, volitional insanity is considered to be transitory in nature.

Incapacity. Incapacity is defined as the absence of legal ability, competence, or qualifications. The inherent unreliability of the testimony given by psychiatrists and psychologists -- which can result in the commitment of individuals for long periods past a prison term, for instance, requires a standard of proof that goes beyond the current standard of clear and convincing evidence. That this situation is a problem was borne out in the film by the faulty psychiatric reports filed about the defendant. Any standard used to establish incapacity should "ensure that only the truly dangerous are…[continue]

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