Does an insanity defense work? [infographic]

In 2012, James Holmes walked into a movie theater in Colorado and opened fire. According to the Chicago Tribune, the attack killed 12 people and caused injuries to 70 others. In the years following the incident, the University of Pennsylvania’s neuropsychiatry department’s head spent 28 hours with Holmes and reached the conclusion that he had suffered delusions and schizophrenia, meeting the legal requirements for insanity.

The doctor and another psychiatrist presented their findings supporting the defense during the trial, where prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. However, two court-appointed psychiatrists reported that Holmes was sane when he committed the crime. As any Minneapolis felony lawyer knows, there are certain ramifications that must be met in order to successfully claim an insanity defense.

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Defining insanity

As the Legal Information Institute points out, the insanity defense arose during the 18th century, when society determined that the mentally ill cannot control their behavior. The laws regarding what constitutes insanity have evolved over time, including standards such as demonstrating that the defendant does not know right from wrong. Each state has its own definition of when a defendant may be legally insane, though four states – Kansas, Utah, Montana and Idaho – do not allow the defense to plead insanity.

In Minnesota, the judicial system applies the M’Naghten Rule, named for an Englishman who stood trial – and was acquitted by reason of insanity – for shooting and killing the Prime Minister’s secretary. The rule states that people with a cognitive impairment or mental illness that renders them unable to understand their crimes or right from wrong will be found not guilty by reason of insanity as long as the defense can prove the condition and its relationship to the crime.

There is also the Durham Rule, which states that someone may be found not guilty by reason of insanity when the illegal behavior was the result of the mental impairment. Only New Hampshire employs this rule.

Lastly, the Model Penal Code Rule demands that a successful insanity defense must demonstrate that the defendant lacked the capacity to understand the behavior or act in accordance with the law.

On a federal level, the U.S. Congress in 1984 passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which included the Insanity Defense Reform Act, which permits the insanity defense given all of the following:

  • There is clear and compelling evidence.
  • There is a mental illness or defect involved.
  • The defendant cannot understand the nature of the act.

When pleading insanity in Minnesota, it is important to note that the burden of proof lies on the defense to demonstrate that mental condition of the accused.

How often is it used

As a Minneapolis felony lawyer would know, few defendants actually invoke the insanity defense. PBS Frontline reports that less than 1 percent of felony cases involve pleading insanity. The National Institutes of Mental Health reports that the method is only successful about one in four times. In the cases studied, 90 percent of the accused had already been diagnosed with having a mental illness.

In his book, “The Jurisprudence of the Insanity Defense,” Michael Perlin asserts that when the defense tactic is successful, it is largely because the prosecution and defense reach a plea agreement known as not guilty by reason of insanity.

Competency to stand trial vs. insanity defense

People may often hear that a defendant is not competent to stand trial. This is different from the insanity defense because competency to stand trial deals with the mental capacity of the defendant at the time of the proceedings. The insanity defense only focuses on the mental state when the crime occurred. In order to be competent to stand trial, the law states that defendants must understand they are being tried for a crime and that they can assist in their own defense. When someone is found incompetent, there is a halt in the proceedings until the person receives treatment and can return to court.

Using the insanity defense

Defendants who wish to plead not guilty by reason of insanity will have to undergo a complete mental evaluation. This will involve interviews with psychologists, psychiatrists and possibly other professionals who can then present their findings during the trial. The jury or judge will then use that testimony to determine if the accused can be legally classified as insane.

If the defense is successful and the defendant is acquitted, he or she will likely be committed to a mental health facility, especially when the person has been found responsible for the crime. The person will remain in treatment often until physicians determine he or she is no longer a threat to society.

It is also possible in some states to be found guilty but mentally ill. These verdicts also place defendants in mental health facilities. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association note that whether a defendant is acquitted based on insanity or found guilty by reason of insanity, the amount of time spent in an institution is typically the same.

Why it matters

In the case involving the Colorado shooting, if the jury determines that he was legally insane during the attack, he will be committed to a mental health facility indefinitely. However, if he is convicted, the jury will then have to come up with a sentence – either life in prison or execution.

The insanity defense is an important moral check on the justice system that allows the mentally ill to receive treatment instead of punishment for behavior they could not fully understand. Anyone who has questions regarding this matter should consult with a Minneapolis felony lawyer.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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