Human life is precious. Killing another person is the most serious crime in the US criminal justice system, and people convicted of the crime face the harshest of all criminal sentences or punishment: a lifetime in jail, or perhaps even death.

Sometimes, the insanity defense is the only way a criminal defendant can avoid these tough punishments. However, it isn’t allowed all the time and it isn’t necessarily a better alternative.

Hasan & Loughner: Text Book Cases?

Two brutal cases in 2010 and 2011 show when the insanity defense may be the only defense.

Hasan’s Shooting Spree

In 2010, Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, the Army based where he was stationed and worked as a psychiatrist. The shootings happened in and around a crowded building where soldiers go to finalize their wills, update vaccinations and get vision and dental screenings before deploying.

Hasan faces the death penalty on 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of premeditated attempted murder. There’s absolutely no question he and he alone pulled the trigger. In mid-2011, Hasan was finally arraigned, but it’s still unclear if he’ll use the insanity defense.

Loughner’s Shooting Spree

Early in 2011, Jared Loughner arrived at a neighborhood meet-and-greet being held by Congresswoman Gabriel Goffered and began shooting, first at Giffords, then at anyone nearby. He killed six people and wounded 14 others, including Giffords, who was shot in the head at point-blank range.

Charged with murder and attempted murder, Loughner could face the death penalty. However, since being declared incompetent to stand trial in May 2011, Loughner’s trial has been on hold and he’s been confined to a mental health facility undergoing treatment.

What is the Insanity Defense?

By raising the insanity defense, defendants claim they lacked the mental capacity to realize they did something wrong or to understand why their actions were wrong. The defense allows judges or juries to decide that defendants weren’t “criminally responsible” for their actions, excusing them from prison for committing crimes.

The defense is based on the belief that people who are ill should be treated for their illness rather than sentenced to prison.

Where is the Insanity Defense Available?

The insanity defense is available in most states. However, Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah don’t allow the insanity defense at all. Of those states that do allow the insanity defense, the standard of proof varies. The two major standards used by states to guide insanity evaluations are the M’Naghten test and the American Law Institute (ALI) test.

When to Use Insanity Defense

The insanity defense should be used for those who really had little or no control over their actions because they couldn’t live up to acceptable behavior standards. The majority of successful cases have been the result of a plea agreements where the prosecution and the defense agree to “not guilty by reason of insanity” pleas.

Winning Insanity Defense

Judges and juries rarely accept the insanity defense. Even if it does work, defendants don’t go free. Rather, they’re confined to mental hospitals.

A judge will usually commit defendants to treatment centers until there’s no danger to anyone. Defendants may be kept longer than their prison terms would have been. Also, after they’re released, they may be subject to long-term judicial oversight, like parole.

Next: How is someone determined to be incompetent or “insane”?

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