Sample Essay on Criminal Law Exam

Criminal Law Exam

Question 1

Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960) was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that dealt with Milton Dusky petition against the decision made by a lower court. Milton Dusky was charged with playing a part in the rape and kidnapping of an underage female, both of which are serious criminal offenses according to the U.S. Constitution. At the time of his trial at the lower court, it was clear that Dusky was suffering from schizophrenia, which puts his competence during the trial in doubt. However, the court decided that he was legally competent to act in order to stand trial, and he was later sentenced to 45 years in prison. Through a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, Dusky (the petitioner) argued that he was not competent at the time of his trial at the lower court, and this was contrary to the findings of the court at the time. Based on this argument, Dusky forwarded a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court requesting that his conviction be reversed. The bone of contention in the case was whether Dusky was or was not competent enough to stand trial at the lower court. The U.S. Constitution highlights a competency evaluation as an assessment of whether a defendant can understand the situation or rationally argue and participate in a court process. Since its establishment, competency test has been used with regard to  several criminals in the U.S. evaluated for competence before execution with its application being common in court rulings involving the death penalty. In Dusky v. United States, the Supreme Court repealed the decision of the lower court and went ahead to affirm the defendant’s right to be subject to a competency evaluation before proceeding to trial (Heilbronner 904).

After reviewing the evidence presented by the petitioning side, the Supreme Court granted the writ of certiorari. Thus, it made a ruling that a defendant’s competence to stand trial implies that he or she must be allowed or can consult with a lawyer with a reasonable or significant degree of rational understanding. The Court also ruled that a defendant’s competence to stand trial means that he or she should factually understand the accusations or proceedings against him or her. After a review of the evidence presented, the Supreme Court justices handling the case agreed that the decision by the lower court which provided for only a brief mental status exam was unacceptable and insufficient to determine Dusky’s competence. On this ground, the Court remanded Dusky’s case for retrial, and his sentence was later reduced from the initial 45 years to 20 years (Heilbronner 904). This case remains a benchmark or standard for adjudicative competence in the United States today despite the difference in statutes addressing competency from state to state. The key perspectives derived from the case and that took center stage during trial were regarding whether the defendant understands the charges against him or her or whether the defendant can help or lure an attorney to his or her defense.

As was already mentioned, the legal implication of the Dusky v United States ruling is that it is used at the federal level and in about half of the states in the U.S. when it comes to trials of criminals in a court of law. Based on the ruling, forensic psychologists must play a role in determining whether a defendant can understand the proceedings leveled against him or her and can assist in preparation for and consultation with an attorney about his or her defense. Based on the Dusky ruling, the mentioned requirements must be met before a defendant is found competent to stand trial. Of course, there are several Supreme Court rulings over the years that have made attempts to clarify the legal implications of the ruling in Dusky v. United States case. One of these rulings is Ford v. Wainwright ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, which held that an insane person is not competent enough to stand trial (Heilbronner 904). In Ford v. Wainwright case, the Court held that the petitioner was entitled to competency evaluation as well as to an evidentiary hearing in court regarding his competency to set the stage for execution. Clearly, this ruling clarifies the legal implications of the ruling in Dusky v. United States case. The clarification is that courts or judicial systems are not allowed to execute criminals before setting a platform for sufficient competency evaluation. Arguably, over the years, several criminals have been off the hook as their participation in crime is often attributed to their mental state, which implies that they are incompetent and are unable to figure out or understand the proceedings against them or work closely with an attorney in their defense. There are several challenges faced by judicial institutions when it comes to the application of the competency concept established by the Court in Dusky v. United States case. One of these challenges is that decisions regarding the sanity or competence of defendants are often made based on opinions at the expense of common law heritage.

Question 2

In the U.S., the determination of criminal responsibility is largely dependent on a person’s state of mind at the time of the crime. Criminal responsibility can be defined as  person’s ability or capability to understand his or her behavior at the time of involvement in a crime. This implies that the determination of criminal responsibility is largely dependent on the thoughts a person has at the time of the crime or what results he or she anticipates or expects when a crime is committed. According to the U.S. federal law, the conviction of committing a particular crime requires  proof or evidence that the alleged criminal possessed the requisite state of mind at the time of committing the crime. From a general perspective, mental states can be intentional, negligent, wanton, or knowing. With an intentional mental state, the alleged criminal’s involvement in a crime is done out of consciousness, and he or she often aims at bringing about a particular result. A knowing mental state is when a person is aware that his or her involvement in an act is criminal or that his participation in an act will have a specific result. Even though wanton and negligent mental states are almost similar, the former means that a person consciously disregards a risk posed by his or her involvement in an act whereas the latter implies that the person is unaware that his or her involvement in an act is risky or dangerous. Based on these perspectives, the general criteria often employed to determine criminal responsibility include the alleged criminal’s narrative of what transpired, his or her behavior before, during, and after the crime is committed, examination of any history of mental illness or psychological conditions, and conducting psychological tests.

However, the criteria used to determine criminal responsibility vary from one state to another in the U.S. For instance, in Georgia, to determine criminal responsibility, the focus is on whether the accused person had the mental capacity or state to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the crime. In California, criminal responsibility is not determined by an accused person’s mental illness, intoxication, disease, or defect but by his or her proof by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she did not have the capability of understanding the nature of his or her act at the time of committing the offense. Despite the different stands taken by states regarding the determination of criminal responsibility and insanity defense, the U.S. has ruled on this issue on various occasions upholding the common-law rule that a person’s state of mind at the time of crime should determine criminal responsibility. In the same vein, on several rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that an insanity plea is admissible in a court of law, and this implies that person determined to be insane at the time of committing a crime can neither stand a trial nor be executed. In this, the Supreme Court states that sufficient competency evaluation must be used to determine whether a person involved in crime was insane or not. An example of a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that highlights on this issue is Ford v. Wainwright 477 U.S. 399 (1986) where the Court ordered a retrial of the defendant on the basis that the ruling by the lower court did not consider the defendant’s state of mind at the time of committing the crime (Heilbronner 904).

Works Cited

Heilbronner, Robert L. “Dusky v. United States (1960).” Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology. Springer New York, 2011. 904-904.