Does Amnesia Render a Defendant Unfit to Stand Trial?

unfit to stand trial, Illinois criminal defense lawyer, Chicago criminal defense attorneyUnder Illinois law, the state may not try a defendant who is “is unable to understand the nature and purpose of the proceedings against him or to assist in his defense.” The law presumes all defendants are fit to stand trial unless there is expert testimony that can prove otherwise. Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court considered the question of whether a defendant who suffered brain damage, and therefore could not recall the events leading to his criminal trial, was unfit to stand trial.

Self-Inflicted Wound Led to Brain Damage

According to testimony offered in court—but, it should be noted, not at a criminal trial where guilt was determined—the defendant in this case broke into his ex-wife’s house and held her and two other persons at gunpoint. The ex-wife managed to call 911, and a police tactical team subsequently arrived and surrounded the house. Following a standoff with police, the defendant apparently shot himself in the head. Police entered the house and found the defendant “lying face down and bleeding.”

The gunshot wound was not fatal. The State of Illinois then charged the defendant with illegal home invasion and aggravated unlawful restraint. The defendant’s attorney argued he was unfit to stand trial due to the ongoing effects of his gunshot injury. Experts hired by both the defense and the prosecution testified the defendant had no memory of the events of the alleged home invasion leading to his arrest. The experts agreed the defendant could not form new short-term memories as the result of his gunshot injury. Because he was not expected to regain his memories within one year, the trial court ruled the defendant unfit to stand trial and remanded him to the custody of the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) for extended treatment.

A few months later, a DHS psychiatrist declared the defendant was not fit to stand trial. The court held what is known as a fitness restoration hearing. The DHS doctor testified that, while some accommodations would have to be made for the defendant’s memory loss, he could understand the charges against him and assist in his own defense. The trial judge, however, reaffirmed the earlier decision that the defendant was unfit to stand trial.

Prosecutors asked the judge to reconsider, arguing that amnesia alone was insufficient to justify a finding that the defendant was unfit to stand trial. The judge denied the motion to reconsider. Likewise, an Illinois appeals court rejected the state’s argument and affirmed the trial court’s decision. And in a decision issued on May 22 of this year, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the two lower courts.

The Supreme Court agreed with prosecutors that a defendant’s physical inability to remember the events surrounding his alleged crime did not, in and of itself, render him unfit for trial. However, amnesia is “is just one of the circumstances that may be considered in determining a defendant’s fitness.” And, considering the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding this particular case, the Supreme Court said there was ample evidence supporting the trial court’s finding of unfitness.

Contact an Illinois Criminal Attorney

A defendant’s mental capacity is just one issue that factors into a criminal trial. An experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney can help identify and address these types of questions to ensure a defendant is afforded all due process rights under Illinois law. If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, please contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney right away.

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