Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Amnesia and Fitness for Trial

United States v. Rodney Andrews, No. 06-1448 (December 7, 2006): Mr. Andrews was examined and found fit to stand trial, even though he was suffering from amnesia that covered the time of the charged bank robbery. The courts, both at trial and on review, seemed to take as a given that Mr. Andrews was truly suffering from amnesia and was not malingering. The Seventh Circuit held that there was no abuse of discretion in refusing a second competency exam. The basic holding was that even though a defendant suffers from amnesia, it is still possible to be fit for trial, so long as the defendant understands the nature of the proceedings and can co-operate with counsel. How can one co-operate if suffering from amnesia?

The Court set out several pertinent factors, most of which boil down to this: was the defendant able to present a defense, even though he could not remember anything about his activities at the time in question. A principal component of this inquiry is the strength of the government’s evidence. The Court thought the evidence in this case was so strong that the defendant’s amnesia was not a barrier to trial.

The facts in this case do not seem to be as strong as suggested by the opinion. No teller seems to have identified him. The evidence consisted of a surveillance video showing the robber smoking cigarettes outside the bank, cigarette butts obtained from outside the bank, and DNA test results that were positive as to Mr. Andrews on one of the butts. (We are not told what results came from the other butts.) As is often the case, the video does not seem to have presented a clear enough image of the robber’s face. Perhaps this evidence is strong enough to meet the forgiving test for Rule 29 motions, but it is an overstatement to say that this evidence is so overwhelming that it makes no difference that the defendant cannot remember where he was and what he was doing at the time of the robbery.

The Court observed that Mr. Andrews "could have asked his family members or friends where he had been or with whom during the time in question." There are a number of problems with this observation. For any given person, "family or friends" can cover a large number of persons. A defendant cannot know which ones to quiz if he does not know what he was doing at the crucial time. Moreover, one should not assume that a person is always in the company of family or friends. So resort to these people is meaningless if they were not present, and the defendant cannot hope to know what other avenues to pursue if family or friends is not an option.

Finally, the charge in this case, bank robbery, often calls for a straightforward defense: someone else is the robber. How does this test work when the acts are undisputed, but there are questions about intent or knowledge?

In staking out this position, the Court rejected a contrary approach taken by the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.