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Understanding the Competency Finding of the Chardon Teen “KILLER”

Written by Melissa Salamon, third year law student at the Ohio State University: Moritz College of Law

Just over a year ago TJ Lane fired shots inside Chardon High School killing three of his classmates and severely wounding two others.  About three months after his arrest the juvenile court held a competency hearing to determine whether or not the 17 year old was competent to stand trial.  Based on the recommendations of the psychiatrist’s evaluation, Lane was found to be capable of understanding the case against him, as well as aiding in his own defense.  Despite the fact that he suffers from hallucinations, psychosis, and fantasies, the court determined he was competent and shortly thereafter he was bound over to adult court. Tracey Read, Accused Chardon High Shooter T.J. Lane to Have Another Competency Evaluation, News-Herald (Willoughby, Feb. 12, 2013),http://www.news-herald.com/articles/2013/02/12/news/doc511a6930965f2349656491.txt.

In February of this year, one year after the deadly shooting, another competency hearing was held; this time in adult court.  Again, Lane was found competent. Id.  He then proceeded to plead guilty to the offenses charged and at his sentencing hearing stripped off his button-up shirt to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “KILLER.” Tracey Read, Chardon High School Shooter T.J. Lane Sentenced to Life Without Parole, News-Herald (Willoughby, Mar. 19, 2013), http://news-herald.com/articles/2013/03/19/news/doc51487df98d972540606375.txt.

He addressed the victims’ families and the court with vulgarities, clearly lacking any remorse for his actions.  Was this youth really competent to stand trial?  How did he make it through not one, but two separate competency hearings?  Will a lifetime in prison better serve this teenage offender and society than the mental health services?  These are the questions we might ask, but understanding the issue of juvenile competency will better help us understand how this cold-blooded teenage killer could be competent.

The juvenile justice system was established as society’s mechanism to rehabilitate youthful offenders, a focus different from the retribution of the adult system.  It was based on the concept of parens patriae, allowing the court to act in place of the parents in the best interest of the child. Matthew F. Soulier & Charles L. Scott, Juveniles in Court, 18 Harv. Rev. Psychiatry 317, 318 (2010).  As the system developed into a system of punishment as well as rehabilitation, concerns arose surrounding the adolescent’s’ capacity in understanding his actions and how accountable a child can be held for wrongdoing.

In 1960, the Supreme Court set the standard for adult competence in Dusky v. United States indicating that the “test must be whether he has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding-and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960).  Every state in the country has adopted this standard, though some expand upon it, setting actual concrete criteria for competence.  The Dusky standard does not require that the accused be free from mental illness or have attained a particular level of intelligence, only that he be capable of understanding what he has been charged with and then to help his attorney in his own defense.

Most states extend the Dusky standard, making it applicable to juveniles in the same way that it applies to adults.  Why would the court, which treats juveniles and adults with different goals in mind, apply the same standard to the two different groups?  The MacArthur study brings to light the lack of development both in intelligence and understanding among children who have been charged with crimes and their inability to make decisions that will benefit themselves in the long run.  Twenty-four states, including Lane’s home state of Ohio, have explicitly addressed this concern by creating a statute defining the competency standard as it specifically applies to juveniles.  In Ohio “competence” and “competency” refer to a child’s ability to understand the nature and objectives of a proceeding against the child and to assist in the child’s defense.  A child is incompetent if, due to mental illness, intellectual disability, or developmental disability, or otherwise due to a lack of mental capacity, the child is presently incapable of understanding the nature and objective of proceedings against the child or of assisting in the child’s defense. O.R.C § 2152.51.  The new standard is important because it both analyzes children with norms associated with children and it allows for evaluators to use the catchall category “otherwise due to a lack of mental capacity” to address concerns not specifically included in mental illness, intellectual disability, or developmental disability.

The MacArthur Study found that children under the age of 15, and even more so those who are involved with the juvenile justice system at this age, have a lower ability to recognize the risks that accompany their choices and tend not to consider the long-range consequences of their decisions. Laurence Steinberg, Juveniles on Trial: MacArthur Foundation Study Calls Competency into Question, 18 Crim. Just. 20, 23 (2003).  They also tended to have a lower level of intelligence and performed poorer in the abilities necessary to stand trial. Id.  While Ohio and 23 other states try to address these concerns through implementation of legislation that is developmentally sensitive to the status of the accused as a child, 26 other states ignore these concerns.  These states should take into account the differences declared in the MacArthur study and develop standards similar to those which states like Ohio use to evaluate competency.  So, while Lane was in fact a murderer who experienced mental illness, at least the public can be assured that he was assessed under a suitable standard for juvenile competency.

salamon, melissa  Written by Melissa Salamon                Melissa recently completed her second year at the Ohio State University: Moritz College of Law and is concurrently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. She works in the Prosecution Division of the Columbus City Attorney’s Office and has previous experience working as a caseworker and a Peace Corps volunteer. Melissa hopes to pursue a career in juvenile justice.