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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Finds Fault in Mental Health Exams

MANHATTAN (CN) - A criminal defendant cannot be said to have borderline "mental retardation" because she would ignore a lawyer's suggestion to get a haircut, a federal judge ruled.

Shanta Robinson, a high school graduate who earned up to 12 college credits, challenged her competency to stand trial for aggravated identity theft and conspiracy by agreeing to submit to a cavalcade of tests.

U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson took issue with the tests in a seven-page ruling Monday.

Forensic psychologist Marc Janoson found that Robinson's score on the first test, Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Fourth Edition, or WAIS-IV, indicated an IQ of 70, which he described as within the "borderline range of mental retardation."

Another exam, the Fitness Assessment Instrument, consists of 15 questions, about half of which must be passed for a trial to proceed.

"Dr. Janoson found that defendant's answers to three of the critical seven questions showed she was not competent to proceed to trial: 1) she 'does not believe the charges she faced are serious because she felt she was not guilty of any of these charges' (Aggravated Indemnity Theft and Conspiracy); 2) she 'does not understand alternate pleas, for example, insanity, plea bargaining'; and 3) she does not understand the role of the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and jury because her answer to the role of prosecutor was inadequate," the order states.

In her response to the first point, Robinson "reasonably considered the question as not asking how serious the charge was but as asking how 'serious' (i.e. strong) she believed the evidence against her was," according to the ruling.

Patterson said Robinson did not understand that she could make counteroffers in the plea-bargaining process in the federal system because she had been prosecuted only in state court previously.

"As to her failure to know the role of the prosecutor, the record disclosed that defendant had not been to trial before," the order states.

The judge skewered the questions asked in the CAST*MR, or Competence for Standing Trial for Defendants with Mental Retardation, where Robinson scored poorly in one of the three components.

One of these presented the test-taker with the case of a hypothetical shoplifter.

"Dr. Janoson found that defendant's answer that, 'she would deny to her attorney having stolen something from a store' was incorrect," the order states. "However, in this court's experience such an answer is common among defendants in the criminal court of the City of New York.

"Dr. Janoson also found incorrect the defendant's answer to the question, 'what if your lawyer asks you to do something you don't want to do like getting a haircut?' Her answer was, 'ignore him (the lawyer) and do what you want to do.' Here the question's suggestion that a female get a haircut does not appear in any way related to the defense of the case so defendant's answer seems correct."

The judge noted other examples in which Janoson confused distrust of the legal system with lack of mental capacity.

He wrote: "In response to the question, 'fellow prisoner suggests to defendant to change her story a little because [you] will get off easier. What would you do?' Defendant answered, 'change my story a little.' This answer does not show lack of mental competency to stand trial or to assist lawyers in her defense but rather a lack of trust in the judicial system, lack of prior education about trial proceedings on one of the many ways in which a defendant can be misled. In such circumstances, a willingness, when she has no experience with trials, to take advice from a person in the same fix as herself is not a showing of lack of mental competency. It merely shows the defendant has to be thoroughly prepared by her attorney as to how trials are conducted and how to, and how not to, conduct herself."

The judge deferred to the findings of the government's expert, Cheryl Paradis.

"Dr. Paradis testified that the answers marked incorrect by Dr. Janoson reflect a lack of prior education in the pitfalls that can confront a defendant during a trial rather than a lack of competency to stand trial and assist one's lawyer in defense to the charges," the order states.

Robinson's erratic behavior at her competency hearing also failed to sway the judge.

"During the competency hearing, the defendant affected disinterest, continuously swayed back and forth in her seat, looked at the ceiling," the order states.

She suddenly sprang to lucid attention at a hearing to revoke her bail two days later, he noted.

"At the bail revocation hearing, however, she testified articulately, sitting upright, gave direct answers to questions, and provided reasoned responses as to why circumstances forced her to continue living in a house with her co­ defendants, despite the new charge and threats by a relative," the order states. "At no time did she sway back and forth in her seat or show disinterest in the proceeding. This appearance before the court confirms the court's conclusion that she is competent to stand trial and to assist her attorney in her own defense."

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