In-depth: Breaking down the criminal justice system

What is fitness to stand trial?
Breaking down what it means to be fit to stand trial in a criminal court case.
Breaking down what it means to be fit to stand trial in a criminal court case.(WIFR)
Published: Aug. 9, 2022 at 8:00 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - Justice for everyone, no matter how long it takes. That’s the goal of Winnebago County Judge Joe McGraw with any criminal case that crosses his desk. But there are many things that can throw a wrench in those plans.

23 News talks with legal experts for a deeper look at how the criminal justice system works, specifically how a defendant’s ability to stand trial impacts the case.

There are three pillars in the U.S. criminal justice system: the police, the courts and the corrections system. After committing a crime, and getting arrested, you begin a lengthy process toward uncovering the truth, no matter how ugly.

“The point is we’re after justice,” McGraw said. “I want to make sure that we’re doing individual justice for each person, each case. Regardless of the outcome, I can know that everybody’s rights were honored, that justice was done, that due process has been received and that’s a high calling, that’s my calling.”

But each case is different and counties across the U.S. are seeing more where a fitness evaluation is required.

“You had to take and share the delusional belief system in court and the whole system ground to a halt,” said Terry Lichtenwald, former Stateline psychologist.

That’s when a psychologist steps in.

“I go in person, and I set with you and I’m like now’s the time, what’s the problem. I ask you what’s going on and together we write a fitness report so if you say you didn’t do it and everything, that’s what I write, that’s what we submit,” Lichtenwald said.

A fitness evaluation will determine if the defendant is fit to stand trial, meaning they must understand the nature and purpose of the allegations against them.

“You don’t even have to know you we’re arrested; you just have to agree that yeah, they wrote it up, you don’t have to agree or disagree with that, but that’s what you’re being accused of,” Lichtenwald said.

Once that’s established, the defendant will either attend a fitness restoration program or the trial will continue as normal. But a fitness evaluation can delay a court case by weeks if not months.

“You could goof this up and do way - spend way more time in the system than if you had just kept your mouth shut, agreed to what your attorney said, paid the find, did the time and left,” Lichtenwald said.

But Judge McGraw says it doesn’t matter how long it takes, just that it was done fairly and accurately to seek justice.

“We have a justice system that is envy of the rest of the world, nowhere else is there this much attention and this many resources dedicated to finding the truth,” McGraw said.

A defendant can spend up to two years in a fitness restoration program where they’re monitored daily. But, because of COVID-19, transfers have been delayed leaving some sitting and waiting for months.

Coming up Wednesday on 23 News at 10 p.m. we speak with a Stateline defense attorney who says if their client is unfit to stand trial, it’s a very difficult position to be in, almost worst-case scenario.

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