The Fourth Circuit incorrectly determined that the trial court fulfilled its weighty responsibility of ensuring Mr. Council was competent to stand trial—and face the death penalty—when, rather than conducting a proceeding even remotely resembling a competency hearing, it deferred to an expert opinion expressed in a two-paragraph letter.

Trial courts have a duty to make an independent, evidence-based determination of competency. To that end, competency hearings should—and generally do— involve a thorough examination of psychiatric evidence, including live testimony and questioning by expert witnesses, a colloquy with the defendant, and other procedures, to probe and supplement the factual bases of experts’ competency determinations.

This standard practice, of a robust judicial inquiry into a defendant’s mental state once competency is judged to be in doubt, is mandatory, regardless of defense counsel’s position on the matter. And that makes good sense, considering that competency is a crucial right enshrined in our constitutional tradition. The trial court in this case failed to safeguard this right.