What does it mean for a defendant to be found criminally insane? Criminal insanity is a defense raised at trial. It is used when a defendant argues they should avoid criminal liability for the actions they committed because the person could not appreciate the wrongful nature of their acts due to their mental state. In essence, the defendant (or their attorney) is arguing that yes, the defendant committed the act, but they should not be held accountable for it because of mental disease or defect.
If a defendant can not appreciate the criminal nature of what they did, in other words, they should not be punished. Generally, for this defense to be used, a jury has to find that the person committed the crime, but at the same time find the person not guilty because the person was insane at the time of the act.
This should not be confused with the defense of incompetency. Persons adjudicated as incompetent are considered not able to assist or participate in the proceedings against them. Such persons are not excused from their actions. They are held in hospitals, mental institutions, or in some instances prisons, until they can be declared competent to stand trial. They are treated for whatever condition is making them incompetent, and once “cured” the trial proceedings go forward.
Defendants who use the defense of criminal insanity must provide adequate evidence during trial of their mental state at the time of the crime, to include expert testimony from physicians or psychiatrists, and often testimony by the defendant themselves. This adds a new aspect to the trial. Now, not only must the prosecution prove the elements of the crime, the defense must prove that the defendant should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
If a defendant is found not guilty by reason of mental disease, defect, or insanity, they are not immediately released back into society. The defense of criminal insanity is not a way to escape incarceration. Although the consequences of such a verdict vary from one jurisdiction to another, in every instance a period of incarceration in a mental institution can be expected. In most cases, a defendant who succeeds in being found not guilty by reason of insanity is committed to a period of confinement twice as long as what they would have been sentenced to in a prison had they been found guilty. By law, persons acquitted by reason of insanity must have their situation periodically reviewed once committed to decide if further treatment is necessary or if the person is capable of being released to society.
Many examples of this defense exist from legal cases. Take the famous case of John Hinckley, Jr, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Regan in 1981. In 1982, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. It took until 2009, twenty-seven years, for Hinckley to gain extended visits to his mother of nine days at a time, and be allowed to have a driver’s license.
The criminally insane are those defendants who commit crimes but are judged not able to realize the criminal nature of their actions at the time of the offense due to their mental state. It must be applied with caution, and with adequate evidence as to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense. This is a necessary element to the legal justice system so that all defendants can be fairly judged according to their intent.