August 15, 2022 by Anthony Riccio
Any time an outrageous crime happens, the first question the public asks – Was the perpetrator in his right mind? Were they insane? On television, some police procedural shows throw around words like incompetent and insane like they are interchangeable. In fact, they are quite different. Often, cases when a defendant’s competency and insanity are questioned grab the headlines.
In the summer of 2021, 24-year-old Khaled Awad approached 41-year-old Rabbi Shlomo Noginski as he stood on the steps of the Shaloh House—a 60-year-old Jewish day school in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood. About 100 elementary school kids were inside the summer camp program.
Noginski has a thick beard, black coat, and a kippah.
Awad pulled out a pistol and demanded the keys to his van. As Noginski tried to give him the keys, Awad drew a knife and yelled for the Rabbi to get into the van. Noginski ran, racing away from the camping children.
But Awad caught him and plunged the knife into him several times—in his arms and legs, stabbing him in the chest, millimeters from his heart.
When Boston police arrived, they convinced Awad to throw down the gun. But he still resists arrest, kicking and screaming.
Noginski was rushed to the hospital. Treated and released the next day, he still has not regained the full use of one of his arms.
After public outcries, Boston prosecutors decided to treat Awad’s felony assault of a Rabbi as a hate crime.
From day one, Awad’s court-appointed attorney called attention to his mental health and requested a competency hearing. A bipolar diagnosis came back from the court clinician, adding that when the attack occurred, he had not been taking his prescribed medication that usually stabilized him.
Awad was ordered by the judge to be held at Bridgewater State Hospital for observation. Bridgewater houses the criminally insane and individuals under mental evaluations by the court. Awad returned to court with a preliminary diagnosis of schizophrenia and/or schizoaffective disorder.
This is not Awad’s first unprompted violent act. A look into his recent past shows a steady degradation of his mental health. The timeline breaks down like this:
Conceptually, competency and sanity play distinct roles in a courtroom. The ability to understand the court process determines competency. Sanity deals with both the defendant’s mental health at the time of the crime and their understanding of culpability in the face of a guilty verdict.
In the case of competency, a representative of a defendant can raise the issue during a hearing or before a trial, or a judge may observe behaviors that cause concerns about a defendant’s competency. When competency is in question, it is the duty of the court to order an evaluation.
A judge informed by the results of an evaluation determines a defendant’s ability to understand the court process and their competency to stand trial. Competency adheres to federal law, specifically the Constitution’s due process clause.
Defendants use insanity as a defense when pleading, as in “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Insanity defenses depend on various state laws as to who carries the burden to prove or disprove insanity.
To simplify the terminology:
In Massachusetts, the burden of disproving an insanity plea falls on the prosecution. One of only 11 states that do not place the onus of proof on the defense for insanity pleas.
In most cases, prosecution and defense teams bring in conflicting mental health experts to answer several questions regarding competency like:
If found competent and a trial with an insanity defense is underway, juries usually hear arguments containing questions like:
Tracing back to Freud, many psychologists consider antisemitism a form of societal mental illness. Mental health professionals would now include crimes emitting from obsessive racism or bigotry into this condition.
Others would argue that a successful competency continuance or sanity plea need to show how pervasive the mental condition is. Defenses may illustrate the ubiquity of the condition, associating the mental illness with symptoms like internal voices that cannot be ignored, disturbing visions, obsessions that lead to impulsive actions, an inability to control impulses.
Boston grows frustrated awaiting the ruling on Awad’s competency, but a hasty decision that results in Awad gaming the system and getting away with this heinous act would only heighten the aggravation and outrage.
Typically, defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity are committed to psychiatric facilities, but the duration of their commitments are not usually set sentences. Sometimes, the committed are declared cured and released. Other times, defendants have spent lifetimes in mental health facilities.