Accused terrorist’s mental status at issue

An Iranian-American man named Mansour Arbabsiar stands accused of plotting to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States in 2011, and apparently, he confessed to his involvement in the plot within days of his arrest.  Well guess what?  Now, his lawyers are arguing that he wasn’t competent to confess.  Since we don’t run into this one very often, allow me to provide some quick background:

When a person confesses to a crime, that person waives multiple constitutional rights (e.g. to remain silent, to be tried before a jury of his/her peers, to confront his/her accusers, to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.).  Therefore, the person must possess the mental capacity to A) understand the rights that are being waived, B) understand the consequences of waiving those rights, C) make a rational decision to go ahead and confess anyway, and D) make the decision freely (i.e. without any real or perceived coercion or duress).

Arbabsiar’s lawyer has gotten a couple of psych experts to examine his client, and these experts apparently have concluded that A) Arbabsiar is “bipolar,” and B) he was in the throes of a bipolar episode (probably manic) at the time of his confession.  Accordingly, the lawyer is arguing that the confession should be suppressed and that the charges against his client should be dropped.

Now, I haven’t examined Arbabsiar, but here’s my impression of this argument based on what I know about this case and about competency to confess generally:  B-O-G-U-S!  First of all, it’d be fairly easy for somebody (especially for somebody who’s motivated by the threat of life in prison) to falsely report the symptoms of a bipolar disorder.  It’s not like there’s a blood test for it.

Okay, so maybe the guy has a documented history of being treated for bipolar illness well before he was facing life in prison.  So what if he does?  A person can be bipolar and still be competent to confess to a crime.  As I’ve noted here in the past with respect to competency to stand trial, competency is a relatively low standard (i.e. it’s pretty tough to be incompetent).  A defendant generally has to be so out of it to be incompetent that if there were a genuine question about this guy’s competency, it’d be surprising to just now be hearing about it months later (i.e. this sounds like a “Hail Mary” tactic to me).

Plus, a confession in a case like this never involves the defendant just sitting there saying “Yes, I did that, and yes, I did that… .”  I haven’t seen the documentation of the confession in this case, but I’ll be it goes into a lot of narrative detail about the alleged murder plot, which would suggest that Arbabsiar’s mind was functioning just fine, both at the time of the plot and at the time of the confession.

If, however, the judge were to rule that the confession is inadmissible, that still wouldn’t mean that the charges against Arbabsiar should be dropped.  It would just require the prosecution to prove its case using evidence obtained independent of the confession, which is I’ll bet is plentiful given that Arbabsiar was arrested and taken into custody before he ever made the confession in the first place.


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