In some cases, individuals who have been accused of crimes are incompetent to stand trial. Usually, this means that the person has a mental disorder that makes it impossible for him or her to actually comprehend what the trials means and the ramifications of the proceedings.
So, if it turns out that the person is not competent and cannot go before a judge and jury, then what? Does that person simply get off without a conviction? While this can complicate things, it doesn't mean the person goes free.
As an example, take a look at the case of James Holmes, who was accused of shooting and killing a dozen people in a Colorado theater.
This question came up a lot during the case when Holmes was being evaluated. Had he been found incompetent, that would not have been the end. Instead, he would have been sent to a mental health hospital -- likely the same one where the initial evaluation was done.
There, medical professionals would work to restore his competency. Their goal would be healing his mind so that he could understand the consequences of the trial again, and they'd evaluate him every 90 days to see if he'd reached that point. If he did, he'd go to trial.
What If It Can't Be Restored?
This mental health hospital has a high-security wing. It does not take a conviction to hold someone in that wing. Under Colorado law, a person who is not competent and who faces serious charges like Holmes did can be held for as long as a conviction would warrant. In his case, that would have been a life sentence.
In Holmes' case, it didn't matter. He was declared competent and convicted. However, the case did shed some light on the process for those unfamiliar with it. This helps to show why it's so important for anyone accused of a crime to know all of the legal options that exist and exactly how they work.
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