The “insanity defense” is one possible defense strategy you can use if you are facing criminal charges. You and your criminal defense attorney might claim that you are “not guilty by reason of insanity” in court.
Your defense will rely on evidence proving that you — the defendant — were “insane” when the alleged crime happened. A successful insanity defense means you are not criminally liable for breaking the law.
TV shows and movies portray defendants found not guilty by “reason of insanity.” In real life, criminal defendants are not as successful with the insanity defense or “insanity plea” as popular media shows.
One study found that the insanity defense is only used in about 1% of all court cases. It is only successful in about 26% of those cases.
So, approximately one-quarter of 1% of cases in the U.S. criminal justice system end with a defendant being found not guilty because of insanity.
In the legal world, the term “insanity” has a different meaning. It is not a medical definition of mental illness. You can be mentally ill and guilty of committing a crime. You can also be not guilty by reason of insanity and still be mentally ill. You can also use the insanity defense even if you have no history of mental illness.
The definition of insanity also varies among different jurisdictions (a court system, such as courts in your state vs. federal courts).
For a legal defense, the term insanity depends on the statutes and laws passed by legislatures and on case law which is developed in the courts.
To prove insanity, most jurisdictions require:
Some jurisdictions have an additional element. They allow a defendant to be found not guilty because of insanity if they were “unable to control their behavior at the time of the offense.”
Other states have re-evaluated the defense and have decided to either eliminate or modify the insanity defense in their state.
Usually, a defendant will need to have a complete mental evaluation as a first step when claiming insanity as a legal defense.
Psychiatrists or psychologists will take the witness stand in your court case. They will testify about your likely state of mind at the time of the offense.
However, even a professional alone can’t decide whether a defendant is insane. As discussed above, insanity is a legal term when used as a criminal defense.
In the end, the jury or judge will decide whether the professional’s testimony and other evidence support a finding of criminal insanity.
Defendants can be committed to a psychiatric hospital if they are found to be guilty of the alleged crimes or not guilty by reason of insanity.
While you might not face prison time, you could still spend mandatory time in a psychiatric hospital or “psych ward.” In the past, state-run psychiatric facilities were called “insane asylums.” This term is no longer used today. In some cases, it can be worse than being found guilty and going to prison.
Typically, the time commitment is not for a set amount of time. Defendants are committed until the individual is believed to no longer be a threat to society. Doctors ultimately have the power to make this subjective decision on when to release a defendant.
A defense of “temporary insanity” is equally difficult to prove. If a defendant asserts temporary insanity as a defense, they are claiming that:
Most states use one of the following four methods to determine temporary insanity:
If a court accepts the proof of temporary insanity and finds you not guilty, you are not likely to face time in a psychiatric facility.
The temporary insanity defense is rare. It is typically used for circumstances where events leading up to the criminal act had a direct impact on the commission of the crime itself. Common examples include:
The successful use of the insanity defense may be rare. However, its existence provides a critical moral check on the legal system.
It allows the law to enforce treatment, rather than punishment, on people who can’t understand their actions. Some people believe the insanity plea helps innocent victims of horrible circumstances and offers rehabilitation and a second chance to offenders.
Because these cases are complex, using an insanity defense is something that you should only attempt with the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney. An attorney will be able to examine your situation and help you determine whether this is actually the best option for mounting a defense.
An arrest and conviction can change everything. Fines or time in jail are the immediate concern, but a conviction will also mean a criminal record that can make it harder to find a job and housing for years to come. If you are arrested or learn you are under investigation, the first thing you should do is contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. You can search LawInfo’s legal directory to find a local criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights, lay out your options, and help you determine the best way to proceed with mounting a defense and limiting potential penalties.