Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hitting the Legal Version of a 7-10 Split

My blogmate, Matt Eichelberger, scored an impressive win this week. According to the Clarion-Ledger, Matt obtained a finding that his client, Tina Funderburk, was incompetent to stand trial. Ms. Funderburk, a 33 year old woman from New York, is accused of either abandoning or smothering her three year old daughter while travelling through Jackson.

A finding of incompetency to stand trial is NOT the same as a finding of insanity. Just last Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court explained its caselaw on this question in Jay v. State, 2009 WL 3465745, Para. 25 (Miss. 2009):

In order to be deemed competent to stand trial, a defendant must be one:

(1) who is able to perceive and understand the nature of the proceedings; (2) who is able to rationally communicate with his attorney about the case; (3) who is able to recall relevant facts; (4) who is able to testify in his own defense if appropriate; and (5) whose ability to satisfy the foregoing criteria is commensurate with the severity of the case.

Ms. Funderburk's case clearly meets these criteria. The Clarion-Ledger story tells us this about the hearing:

A Ridgeland psychiatrist testified Monday at Funderburk's competency hearing in Hinds County Circuit Court that she suffers from schizophrenia and hears voices.

"She is taking two schizophrenia medications, and that's a lot," Dr. Mark Webb testified. "She is better than she was six years ago, but she still thinks her daughter is alive. She is still being controlled by illusions. It is my professional opinion that she is incompetent to stand trial."

Webb said Funderburk hallucinates and believes her pillow and radio and television programs talk to her.

Despite this proof, it's rare for a Circuit Judge to find a defendant -- especially one in a case with horrific facts -- incompetent to stand trial.

Great job in this one, Matt! I hope Ms. Funderburk is able to achieve some peace of mind at Whitfield.


grspore said...

well done indeed. it's refreshing to see a court's deference to the realities of mental illness..

devilsadvocate said...

well, don't forget a child was murdered by this cretin while you are "high fiving" this, errrh, "victory"

stilettoGOP said...

I'm sorry, did you just hope for "peace of mind" to someone who killed a child? I must need more coffee.

Why do we spare nut jobs just because they're nut jobs..is there some rule that you can't "have illusions" in a cell? So, say she's mentally incompetent to stand trial, can't recall relevant facts, can't rationally communicate, etc, then what difference does it make if she's at a hospital or a prison..if she's crazy, would she even know the difference?
Killed a kid, but the tv talks to her, so, even stevens. Makes total sense.

Jim Craig said...

Let's get back to basics, then . . .

The reason we don't have trials when the defendant is mentally incompetent is because our society is based on due process of law. When the defendant in a criminal case can't communicate with his/her attorney, and can't make rational decisions about his/her case, then we can't have the kind of adversarial process our system depends upon to decide the true facts of the case. So, we suspend the case and send the defendant to the State Hospital for treatment. If the defendant recovers, the case resumes.

devilsadvocate and stilettoGOP, you are both assuming Ms. Funderburk did, indeed, abandon and/or smother her child. But mentally incompetent people are, not infrequently, left holding the bag for someone else's crime. I have one client who was convicted wholly on testimony from people who could just as easily be the real killers. But since my client was incompetent, his testimony was entirely incoherent. He's on death row now because the Court did not have the fortitude shown by Judge Green.

And is it so horrible to wish "peace of mind" to Ms. Funderburk? Do we think that insane people don't suffer when their children die (once they realize that's what happened), even if they themselves do turn out to be responsible for the death?

By the way, devilsadvocate, a "cretin" is not the same as a schizophrenic. I hope you are spared the struggles of those who have family members with severe mental illness.

Why are we fighting in the Middle East if we don't want to maintain the values of Western Civilization? Let's just declare every arrested person guilty, lock up mentally ill persons as "cretins," and punish them too.

Justin said...


I typed out two responses to the two above posts this morning. The first was a reasonable critique of the attitudes prevelant in the public concerning criminal defense. The other was a tongue in cheek "let's try 'em, and shoot 'em out back." response.

Flustered, I just gave up, banged my head on my desk a few times, and tried to get to work.

Your response says everything I'd like to say, but with none of the smarm.

chmeredith said...

I've got a question. My knowledge on this subject is fairly limited, but I know there are the incompetence/insanity defenses that are based on temporary, sudden onsets of some mental infirmity, and there are those (as here, apparently) that are based on a more or less chronic mental condition for which the person is undergoing treatment.

Again, not knowing the facts of this case, it seems at first blush that whatever was wrong with Ms. Funderburk that prevents her from standing trial was probably also wrong with her whenever she allegedly did whatever she allegedly did. So how often does it happen that a person with chronic mental illness is found incompetent to stand trial, but then loses on the insanity defense? To put the question another way, can we reasonably infer from her incompetence to stand trial that she will also be found to have been insane at the time of the alleged crime?

devilsadvocate said...

your initial post sounds like a fan at a sporting event.

fact: a child was murdered.

fact: all evidence points to the mother.

sorry, but you come off not as praising the judge for making a good decision, but more like yelling "hooray" that a probable murderer escapes standing trial.

we'll agree to disagree, although I'm sure you didn't intentionally mean any disrespect to the dead child.

Michael Freeman said...

Perhaps the devils advocate would benefit from the knowledge that justice does not always mean punishment. If someone is so mentally impaired that they can't reasonably contribute to their own defense, we, as a just and honorable society must look at whether they can understand that what they did was wrong. Ms. Funderburk, it appears, did not even know her child was dead, let alone that she was accused of a crime.

Yes, a child is dead and that is tragic. Yes, a crime was likely committed. But can you allow that, even without a trial and conviction and another soul on death row, that maybe justice was done?