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Current Application of the Insanity Defense

The insanity defense has long been recognized as a legal defense to the commission of a crime. While there's a desire to shield the mentally ill from the full brunt of the legal system, there are also concerns about false claims of mental illness used to manipulate the criminal justice system. Courts have struggled with developing a balance to protect the mentally ill, while protecting the public from those who would abuse the system.

This article discusses the current application of the insanity defense and the various requirements that the courts use when a defendant claims to be innocent by reason of insanity.

Burden of Proof for the Insanity Defense

The question of who has the burden of proof with an insanity defense has been a source of controversy. Before the Hinckley verdict, a majority of states placed the burden of proof with the state; that is, the prosecutor had to prove that the defendant was not insane. After the Hinckley verdict, the vast majority of states required the defense to prove that the defendant was indeed insane.

In states where the burden is on the defense to prove insanity, the defense is required to show either by clear and convincing evidence or by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is insane. In states where the burden is still on prosecutors to prove sanity, they are required to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Insanity Defense: Background

From as early on as the 12th century, the use of an insanity defense has essentially been a legal shield for persons suffering from mental illness. Under some circumstances, if a mentally ill defendant is found "not guilty by reason of insanity," it excuses that person from the legal responsibility for his or her criminal behavior. This is true even though the person actually committed the crime or, in legal terminology, is "culpable" of the crime.

Throughout history, the standards surrounding the insanity defense, particularly after the John Hinckley verdict, which allowed President Ronald Reagan's attempted assassin to go to a psychiatric hospital rather than prison, have tightened dramatically.

Commitment and Release Procedures

Contrary to popular misconceptions, defendants who use an insanity defense and are found not guilty by reason of insanity are not simply released from custody. They are generally committed to mental hospitals where they can be confined for longer than their prison terms would have been. In the case of Jones v. United States, the Supreme Court in 1983 backed this proposition, ruling that the sentence that criminal defendants would have received had they been convicted should have no bearing on how long they could be committed to a mental hospital.

After Hinckley, many states changed their commitment policies to ensure that a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity would be required to stay in a mental hospital for a certain period of time for evaluation following acquittal. Previously, no time was specified. Also, several states changed the burden of proof for release from the state to defendants.

Distinction Between the Insanity Defense and Competency to Stand Trial

All jurisdictions require that criminal defendants must be competent to stand trial, meaning that defendants understand the nature of the proceedings against them and are able to assist counsel in their defense. A person who is found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial is usually hospitalized for treatment until such time that the person is competent to stand trial. Competency does not address the guilt or innocence of a party, and so competency to stand trial should not be confused with the insanity defense.

The Federal Insanity Defense Reform Act

The federal Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, codified at 18 U.S.C. section 17, provides: "It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any Federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense."

This act, a response to the Hinckley verdict, eliminated the Irresistible Impulse Test from the insanity defense under federal law. The act also provided that "the defendant has the burden of proving the defense of insanity by clear and convincing evidence." Previously under federal law, the government had the burden of proving sanity.

Guilty But Mentally Ill

Finally, the Hinckley verdict accelerated the adoption of "guilty but mentally ill" verdicts by states. The "guilty but mentally ill" verdict allows mentally ill defendants to be found criminally liable and requires them to receive psychiatric treatment while incarcerated, or, alternatively, to be placed in a mental hospital and then, when they are well enough, to be moved to a prison to serve their sentences. Laws allowing pleas and verdicts of guilty but mentally ill were first adopted in Michigan in 1975, and concurrent with or subsequent to the Hinckley trial were adopted by 12 more states.

Get Legal Help Understanding the Application of the Insanity Defense

Whether you wish to plead guilty but mentally ill, not guilty by reason of insanity, or some other defense to criminal charges, you're going to need the hard work of a trained legal professional. Get help with your defense today by contacting a skilled criminal defense attorney in your area.

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