Criminal Law

When Does the Insanity Defense Make Sense?

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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.

Difference Between "Competent to Stand Trial" and Insanity Defense

Competency to stand trial depends on a defendant's mental state at the trial. Generally, defendants must be able to understand the criminal charges against them and be able to help their attorneys defend the charges.

The insanity defense, on the other hand, refers to the state of mind when the crime was committed.

Of course, people should be punished for committing crimes. The insanity defense isn't easy to prove, and while it may save someone from prison or even death, it doesn't mean they escape punishment altogether. Rather, it helps make sure that some criminal defendants get the treatment they need while keeping the rest of safe at the same time.

Two test are available that determine someone's ability to stand trial.

M'Naghten Test

The M'Naghten test defines insanity as the complete inability to distinguish right from wrong. Criminal intent doesn't exist if the judge or jury finds the defendant could not tell the difference between right and wrong.

American Law Institute (ALI) Test

Unlike the M'Naghten test, the ALI test requires that defendants be substantially unable to tell the difference between right and wrong. Also, insanity in this test includes situations when defendants act on their involuntary, irresistible urges making them unable to control their actions.

Mental Disorder and Impaired Mental Functioning

Both tests require the presence of a diagnosable mental disorder, but this isn't enough by itself. The symptoms must so harm mental functioning that defendants literally didn't know what they were doing, didn't understand right from wrong at the time of the offense (M'Naghten) or couldn't control their actions (ALI).

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does a defendant need to be remorseful for committing the crime to use the insanity plea?
  • Does a defendant need to have been insane at the time of the crime or is it enough to be insane at the time of trial in order to use the insanity defense?
  • Does the prosecution have to prove a defendant isn't insane, or do the people who ask the court to find them not guilty by reason of insanity have to prove insanity?
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