Movies about criminal justice sometimes include a twist at the end where the accused evades responsibility by using the insanity defense. The media often reports on horrific crimes where top criminal defense attorneys plead insanity on behalf of clients.
If you are accused of breaking the law and you suffer from a mental illness or disability, you may wonder if this defense is available to you.
Pleading insanity is intended for people whose mental disabilities or illness prevent them from knowing that their actions were wrong. Invoking this defense requires a thorough knowledge of how courts regard mental impairment as it pertains to culpability for legal infractions.
If you or someone you care about is considering whether mental illness could affect your defense in a criminal situation, here are a few factors to consider.
1. The Insanity Defense Does Not Prevent One From Being Locked Up
If someone is found “not guilty by reason of insanity,” this does not mean they are allowed to go free. Although the defendant will be technically “acquitted” of the criminal charge, they will then be involuntarily committed to a state mental health hospital.
An individual who is committed because they have been found by a court to be legally insane must stay in that facility until they can prove that they no longer have the mental illness in question or they are no longer a danger to others.
Depending upon the nature of the crime, it is possible that the person may be committed to the mental hospital for a longer period than they would have served if they had gone to jail.
For example, if you have been accused of DWI and causing bodily harm to someone, top criminal defense attorneys may advise against invoking the insanity defense, even if you are mentally ill. You might be able to settle or even plead guilty to a lesser charge so you would serve a shorter amount of time in prison than you would if you were committed to a psychiatric facility.
Usually, it takes a long time to establish that a mental illness has been “cured” or that the person in question is no longer a threat to others. Occasionally people are released many years later, when their advanced age or physical weakness prevents them from presenting a threat to society.
The insanity defense is most commonly used in cases of serious crimes like homicide. In cases of serious felonies, courts often find that the nature of the crime itself indicate that the person is inherently dangerous, and therefore must stay hospitalized.
2. It’s Extremely Difficult to Successfully Invoke the Insanity Defense
Top criminal attorneys will tell you that it is extremely challenging to win an acquittal by using the insanity defense.
After John Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan and was successful using the insanity defense to avoid prison, many states reformed their laws to make this defense much harder to invoke.
Many states shifted the burden of proof from the prosecutor to the defense, requiring defense attorneys to show by clear and convincing evidence or by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was insane.
Legal insanity does not have the same definition as medical insanity. Proving legal insanity may require psychiatric and other expert testimony. Top criminal defense attorneys are able to integrate forensic medical evidence with the legal requirements for proving someone not guilty by reason of insanity.
3.The Insanity Defense May Not Be Appropriate for All Criminal Allegations
Defendants who claim to be insane must be shown they lack the ability to form criminal intent. This can be demonstrated if they cannot control their actions, or are unable to understand that certain actions are wrong or even evil.
While murder cases litigating the insanity defense are often in the news, some defendants try to use this defense for lesser offenses. It’s important to consult with an attorney on the wisdom of this strategy.
The high costs of expert testimony may influence your decision on whether this tactic is advisable. You should weigh the risk of getting put away for an extended period of time; your stay in a mental hospital could exceed the longest possible criminal sentence for the charge you are facing.
4. Being Mentally Ill or Disabled Does Not Necessarily Mean Insane in the Eyes of The Law
There may be numerous mental illness or disability diagnoses, but they all do not rise to the level of legal insanity. For example, suffering from ADHD or PTSD does not automatically absolve someone from criminal acts.
However, like being intoxicated, these states of mental incapacity may affect one’s legal ability to form criminal intent.
Being mentally disabled also does not automatically result in an acquittal of criminal charges. Many mentally disabled people understand the difference between right and wrong.
Top criminal defense attorneys may use evidence of mental incapacity in trying to establish grounds for the insanity defense, but there are other tests that must be met beyond IQ.
5. Mental Incapacity May Mitigate Punishment
As described above, it takes a special combination of circumstances in addition to the skill of a top criminal defense attorney to establish insanity as the grounds for acquitting someone of a crime.
The National Institute of Mental Health found that less than 1 percent of county court cases involved the insanity defense, and that of those, only around one in four was successful.
However, showing evidence of mental illness or impairment has been found to be a mitigating factor when the court determines sentencing.
A defendant may be given a shorter or more lenient sentence if he or she can show that his mental impairment played a part in his conduct: for example, perhaps he was unable to determine consent in a sexual assault case.
Is the Insanity Defense Right for You? Contact Top Criminal Defense Attorneys
It is a serious matter if someone you know who suffers from mental illness or disability is accused or a serious crime. You will want to pursue any avenue to help them get the assistance they need and avoid jail.
If you have questions about any aspect of criminal defense, contact us today.