Is a 15 Year-Old Competent to Stand Trial?
It was the day before Dakotah Eliason’s sixteenth birthday, and as he spent the evening talking to his father, there was no discussion of how the big day would be celebrated. Dakotah was in prison, and he was speaking to Mr. Eliason through an intercom and a pane of glass. Both of them knew that Dakotah would spend this birthday, and many more, behind the walls, fences and barbed wire that held him inside the Thumb Correctional Facility.
One year earlier, Dakotah had been sentenced to life without parole by a Michigan court for first-degree homicide. After suffering through a series of losses –his cousin died in a car crash, his girlfriend had dumped him, his family was losing their home, a friend had committed suicide and his childhood dog had died — Dakotah had picked up a loaded gun in his home and shot and killed his grandfather. He was just 14 years old.
Dakotah had been spending a typical Saturday night at his grandparents’ house. After his grandmother went to bed and his grandfather fell asleep on the couch, Dakotah has explained that began thinking about his family and friends. He felt like everyone he loved was drifting away. He considered killing himself and tried to write a suicide note but he then began to consider taking someone else’s life instead. At three in the morning, Dakotah pointed the handgun at his sleeping grandfather and shot him in the head.
When speaking with the police, Dakotah said that he had never thought about hurting his grandfather but “something overcame me.” He wished he could take it back. He went on to explain how it felt to kill his grandfather. “The thing is when you actually do kill somebody, whether you have an emotional attachment or not, you get about five seconds. All the tension goes away. It’s just that initial feeing, it’s an overwhelming feeling – – I’m not really sure how to explain it.”
Rachel Aviv’s “No Remorse”, published in the January 2 issue of The New Yorker, chronicles Dakotah’s story, and examines our juvenile justice system as a whole, tracing how it has evolved from its origins in the early twentieth century as a system designed to rehabilitate youths into its current form as a system designed to punish juvenile defendants. During the course of this transformation, 46 states have changed their laws to make it easier for juveniles to be tried as adults.
In response to the increasing number of juveniles tried in adult criminal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court has abolished the death penalty for juveniles and held that life-without-parole sentences for juveniles whose crimes did not result in death is cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.
But a movement among lawyers and health professionals would further protect juveniles, especially those under 16. These advocates seek recognition that their very age renders juveniles’ criminal trials inappropriate. And while the Supreme Court has acknowledged that juveniles are less culpable for their crimes committed “by reason of youth and immaturity” the Court has never said whether a juvenile’s youth and immaturity may be used as grounds for his incompetency to stand trial.
Ms. Aviv notes that today, “there is little recognition that people may be incompetent to stand trial because of their age”, and that approximately half of the juveniles tried as adults do not understand their Miranda warnings. This conflates the issue of whether a defendant is competent to stand trial with the issue of whether a defendant has understood his Miranda rights. As we’ll see, lawyers for juvenile defendants would be well advised not to make this mistake.
Dakotah’s attorney argued that Dakotah’s statements to the police should not be allowed as evidence against him because he didn’t understand at that time that he was free to stop talking. The judge disagreed, finding Dakotah capable of understanding his Miranda rights that were read to him by the police.
It does not appear that his attorney argued that Dakotah was incompetent to stand trial. LASIS explores what might have happened if he had.
The idea that a criminal defendant must be competent to stand trial has long been part of our legal system. The test for competency, as defined in 1960 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States is whether a defendant has the ability to consult with his attorney with “a reasonable degree of rational understanding” and whether the defendant has a rational and factual understanding of the proceeding. Criminal defendants found incompetent based on this standard typically suffer from some type of mental disorder or disability.
In most states, a juvenile tried as an adult may be found incompetent to stand trial only as a result of a mental disorder or disability. Juveniles who are unable to understand and participate in their legal proceeding because of normal cognitive limitations related to incomplete and ongoing development (known as “developmental immaturity”) have no basis to be deemed incompetent by the court and must stand trial.
But courts and legislatures have begun to acknowledge that the test for juvenile competency must in some ways differ from the test used for adult defendants. In Michigan, where Dakotah was convicted and sentenced, the Court of Appeals has stated that, “it is possible that a juvenile, merely because of youthfulness, would be unable to understand the proceedings with the same degree of comprehension an adult would.” Just five months before Dakotah committed his crime, the Michigan state legislature introduced legislation addressing “the manner in which a juvenile’s competency to stand trial for the commission of a crime would be determined.” Although this legislation stalled and did not pass, similar legislation is pending in the current legislative session.
The findings of a study assessing juvenile’s capacity to participate in criminal proceedings revealed that juveniles, especially those under 16, demonstrated a limited understanding of legal matters and a limited ability to make legally relevant decisions. In light of Dakotah’s age at the time of his trial, this study when combined with the Michigan Court of Appeals’ view on juvenile competency presents support for the argument that Dakotah was unable to fully grasp the severity of the legal proceedings and the consequences he would face if found guilty.
Typically, when a defendant is found incompetent to stand trial, the court will halt the proceedings and order rehabilitation to educate the defendant on the legal process. Dakotah would have benefitted from such a “time out”. His trial began just five months after the crime was committed and lasted only two and a half days. During the trial, Dakotah’s attorney was unable to advance any theory about the crime and did not contest most of the testimony offered by the district attorney. Had Dakotah been found incompetent, the process of educating him on the legal process may have given him an opportunity to catch his breath, and his attorney an opportunity to present a stronger defense.
Prior to trial, the possibility of having Dakotah plead guilty to second-degree murder had been discussed. While this would have carried a 14 year to life sentence, it would have given Dakotah an opportunity for parole. But negotiations broke down and the prosecuting attorney decided to take the case to trial. Perhaps if Dakotah’s attorney had raised the issue of Dakotah’s competency to stand trial, the chance that the court would agree may have persuaded the district attorney to negotiate the plea bargain.
We’ll never know whether Dakotah would have been found incompetent to stand trial. But there’s reason to think taking such a position may have made the difference for Dakotah between a life sentence… and the possibility for parole, with a second chance at life.