Cooper v. Oklahoma
In order for a criminal defendant in the United States to face trial, he or she must be evaluated for competency. If someone cannot understand the legal proceedings that will be happening, or is unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, longstanding common law traditions prevent their trial and conviction. How much proof of incompetency does a defendant have to provide in order for the courts to rule them incompetent to stand trial? That is the question the Supreme Court answered in their decision in Cooper v. Oklahoma.
Cooper's Arrest and Strange Behavior
Cooper was burglarizing the home of an 86 year old man named Harold Sheppard when Sheppard confronted him. Cooper's response was to stab Sheppard to death. He later used Sheppard's credit cards, first attempting to use them to purchase cocaine from a drug dealer, then buying watches at a local J.C. Penney store. A clerk from the store gave the police a description of the man who had used the cards after the purchases were tracked, and eventually Cooper was apprehended by police, who brought him into custody and began an interrogation.
Cooper began acting very strangely even during the interrogation process. Initially, he confessed to both the Sheppard murder and another murder. Then, he said he hadn't committed either murder and in fact had not even been in the house of either victim. He later said he couldn't remember whether he had committed any murders or not.
While officers uncovered huge amounts of circumstantial evidence that Cooper was responsible for the murder of Harold Sheppard, major questions about Cooper's competency remained. Cooper was actually given a total of five competency hearings, because of strange behavior ranging from running out of the courtroom because he believed his attorney to be evil to talking to himself while curling up into a fetal position on the floor during courtroom proceedings.
However, questions remained about whether Cooper was merely faking his mental illness in order to escape punishment. In Oklahoma at this time, judges required defense attorneys to provide “clear and convincing evidence” of incompetence before deciding someone was not competent to stand trial. While psychologists did in fact say Cooper was not competent, the judge disagreed. Cooper was tried and sentenced to death, and subsequently appealed, eventually to the United States Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Ruling
The Supreme Court ruled in Cooper v. Oklahoma that “clear and convincing evidence” was too high a legal standard for defendants to meet, and that Oklahoma had violated Cooper's due process rights by insisting on this standard of proof. Instead, the Court ruled that states must base competency hearings on the lowest standard of proof in the American judicial system, that of a preponderance of the evidence.
What Cooper v. Oklahoma means for defendants is that their attorneys now only need to prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant is not competent to stand trial. This makes it substantially easier for defense attorneys to meet their burden and stop the trial before it even starts.