Status of the Insanity Defense

Using "insanity" or mental defect as a defense against criminal charges has always been infrequent and, in the rare cases where it has been successfully used, the result is often the commitment of the individual to a mental institution.

Given the fact that it's rarely used, and even more rarely successful, the insanity defense has been the subject of more outrage and concern than it really merits. Dozens of movies, TV shows, and novels have used the insanity defense. The sense of outrage that its use tends to raise in lay persons has only contributed to the notion that insanity defenses are a way for particularly clever criminals to commit a terrible crime and escape punishment.

But the facts surrounding this defense to criminal charges tell a different story, as you see can below.

The Insanity Defense: Fact vs. Fiction

Confinement in a mental institution may be as restrictive, or even more so, than imprisonment in the penal system and, unlike a prison sentence, the person may be held indefinitely.

Regardless of these facts, the public's concern about the insanity defense has made it more difficult than ever before for the defense to be used successfully. Furthermore, the inadvisable use of the defense by criminal defendants has resulted in a narrowing of the definitions relating to the defense and a general skepticism directed at defendants who use it.

Commentators have noted that insanity pleas are risky for criminal defendants because they virtually eliminate any possibility that prosecutors will agree to a plea bargain. Studies, including an eight-state investigation by the National Institute of Mental Health, have shown that the insanity defense is raised in less than 1 percent of all felony cases. This defense is successful in only a fraction of those cases.

Public Outcry

Nevertheless, when the insanity defense is raised, it continues to spur controversy. For instance, in 2001, Andrea Yates of Texas, who allegedly suffered from a mental illness, drowned her five children in less than an hour. At her trial for capital murder, Yates' attorneys pleaded insanity on behalf of their client, arguing that she suffered post-partum depression. A jury rejected this argument and found her guilty. She received a life sentence for the murders.

The public showed great interest in the Yates trial. Some members of the public, especially but not limited to women's groups, sympathized with Yates due to her battle with post-partum depression. At her trial, four out of five psychiatrists and one psychologist testified that Yates didn't know right from wrong. However, the single mental health expert called by the prosecution testified that Yates indeed knew right from wrong, and the jury eventually rejected her insanity defense. Facts later revealed that the state's expert had presented false testimony regarding Yates, and a Texas appellate court later reversed her conviction and ordered a new trial.

The Yates case demonstrates that in some instances pleas of insanity can garner some support. Nevertheless, such a defense is still difficult to prove, and states have not made significant efforts to revise their versions of the insanity defense in recent years.

Questions About Insanity Defenses? Ask a Qualified Attorney Near You

The notion of insanity in criminal cases is complicated and, unless properly presented, may result in hostility from the prosecution, the jury, and the community as a whole. The advice and assistance of an experienced attorney can help ensure that the defense is carefully prepared and presented. Contact a local criminal defense attorney today to learn more about the defense options that can apply in your case.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.