Mental Competency At Issue In California College Shooting Case

The Associated Press reported this week that the murder case of One Goh was suspended on Monday after Goh’s attorney questioned his mental competency. Goh has been charged with seven counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder as a result of an April 2nd. He pleaded not guilty.

The shooting spree occurred in Oakland at Oikos University. The University is a small Christian college founded to help Korean immigrants adjust to life in America. Goh is a former student who prosecutors believe planned the attack over a tuition dispute with the school. Goh fled the campus after the shooting in one of the victim’s cars. He was arrested in Alameda shortly after fleeing but not before he confessed to a supermarket security guard that he had just shot several people. Due to the circumstances surrounding the shooting, Goh would be eligible for the death penalty if convicted.

The hearing on Monday was supposed to be a routine preliminary hearing, but the assistant public defender representing Goh told the Alameda County Superior Court judge that Goh refused to speak to him and that he wanted a mental evaluation to determine if Goh is competent to stand trial.

What Does it Mean to be Incompetent to Stand Trial?

The California Penal Code addresses this question in CAL. PEN. CODE § 1367 and CAL. PEN. CODE § 1368. The statute defines someone who is mentally incompetent to stand trial as someone who as a “result of mental disorder or developmental disability” is “unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner.” The defendant must understand that he or she committed a crime and that the court proceedings are in response to his or her actions. If a defendant is charged with a crime, but he cannot explain what he did a trial then he might be deemed incompetent. The second part of that definition is also important because everyone has the right to counsel. A paranoid defendant on trial for a criminal offense might not be competent to stand trial if due to his or her paranoia he or she does not trust the attorney and therefore refuses to assist with the defense. Based on the reports, that is the situation the court is faced with concerning One Goh.

The developmental disability might be easier to prove since that would be something previously detected and noted. Examples of this would include autism, mental retardation or epilepsy.

How is Incompetency Determined?

Penal Code 1368 describes the process through which mental competency is determined. The judge asks the defense attorney if he or she thinks the defendant is incompetent. If the attorney says yes, then the judge is required to suspend the proceedings and order a competency hearing. Even if the attorney says no, the judge may still suspend the proceedings and order a hearing if the judge thinks the defendant is incompetent despite the attorneys answer to the contrary.

The defense attorney must present “substantial evidence” that the defendant is incompetent. Basically this means that the evidence is strong enough to raise a reasonable doubt in the judge’s mind of the defendant’s competence. If this evidence is presented and accepted, the judge will order a competency hearing which will be before either a judge or jury.

What Happens Next?

If the defendant is found competent, then the trial begins again. If the defendant is found incompetent, then the defendant is ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment.

A defendant may regain competence after undergoing treatment. If this occurs, the criminal trial picks up where it left off.

Lauren K Johnson has handled many case with competency issues. Contact our office today to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney about your case.