Competency to Stand Trial

No error in trial court’s determination of defendant’s “present” ability to understand the proceedings and assist counsel, including denial of motion for a second hearing based on “new evidence”

Dang v. Com., 287 Va. 132, 752 S.E.2d 885 cert. denied sub nom. Dang v. Virginia, 135 S. Ct. 130, 190 L. Ed. 2d 99 (2014)

On appeal from his conviction for murder and violation of a protective order, petitioner Lam Dang argued that the circuit court erred in failing to order a second competency evaluation after his counsel uncovered new evidence concerning head trauma he suffered as a child. In his first competency evaluation, Dang was found competent to stand trial and seemed particularly focused on providing “his side of the story” and repeatedly had to be constantly redirected to the question posed. Dang’s evaluator noted that he exhibited a high degree of situational anxiety, but that it was not indicative of a mental illness relevant to competency but was “consistent with most defendants who face legal charges.”

Four days prior to his trial, Dang’s counsel moved for a second competency evaluation based on evidence he had recently uncovered that, beginning at age six and continuing until sixth or seventh grade, Dang had been subject to repeated physical assaults that included being pelted in the head with rocks. The circuit court denied the motion, finding no probable cause that Dang “lack[ed] substantial capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist his attorney in his own defense.”

The Supreme Court of Virginia upheld the Court of Appeals’ denial of Dang’s petition. The Supreme Court found that the circuit court had given adequate weight to the new information acquired by defense counsel and had focused on the proper issue at hand— Dang’s “present ability to understand the proceedings and assist his counsel.” Given the first evaluator’s opinion that Dang’s shifting focus was representative of “situational anxiety” and the “wide latitude” offered to circuit courts in light of their “first-hand interactions with, and observations of, the defendant and the attorneys at bar” the Supreme Court of Virginia found that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in denying the request for a second evaluation.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 1