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The Insanity Defense: What You Should Know

The Journal of Psychiatric Practice wrote in an article in 2000, "A defendant must be found not guilty by reason of insanity if, at the time of the alleged offense, and as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, he did not know what he was doing, or that what he was doing was wrong. For the purpose of this statute, 'mental disease or defect' does not include a condition for which the only, or primary, manifestation is chronic antisocial or illegal behavior."

Conditions that Fall Under 'Mental Illness'

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), categorizes the following conditions under the category of mental illnesses:

    • Autism Spectrum Disorders
    • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
    • Bipolar Disorder
    • Borderline Personality Disorder
    • Dissociative Disorders
    • Dual Diagnosis and Integrated Treatment of Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Disorder
    • Eating Disorders
    • Major Depression
    • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
    • Panic Disorder
    • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
    • Schizoaffective Disorder
    • Schizophrenia
    • Seasonal Affective Disorder
    • Suicide
    • Tourette's Syndrome
    • Generalized Anxiety
    • Post Traumatic Stress

A mental disease or disorder constituting legal insanity does not include "disorders that result from acute voluntary intoxication or withdrawal from alcohol or drugs, character defects, psychosexual disorders or impulse control disorders." It also does not include "momentary, temporary conditions arising from the pressure of the circumstances, moral decadence, depravity or passion growing out of anger, jealousy, revenge, hatred, or other motives in a person who does not suffer from a mental disease."

Check out NAMI's website for more information about any of these conditions. NAMI is a grassroots organization of individuals and families whose lives are affected by mental illness. You can also check out the National Institute of Mental Health's website if you wish to learn more facts that could prove relevant to your case.

Competency to Stand Trial

A criminal defendant must be competent to stand trial, or must understand the proceedings against them and be able to assist with their defense. A person can be found incompetent if he/she is diagnosed as being mentally ill, senile or suffering from some other debility that does not allow him/her to manage their own affairs.

When a person is found incompetent to stand trial, he/she is usually hospitalized for treatment until they are competent to stand trial. 'Competency to stand' does not have anything to do with guilt or innocence and should not be confused with the insanity defense.

Burden of Proof

Since the passage of the Insanity Defense Reform Act, the burden of proof lies on the defendant rather than the government. The defendant must provide "clear and convincing" evidence that, due to a mental illness, he/she did not mean to commit the act or did not realize that the criminal act was wrong. A defendant can be found legally insane if he/she can prove that:

    • They did not know that their actions were illegal
    • They did not know they were committing the act
    • They were forced to commit the offense by an irresistible force
Guilty Except Insane

The "Guilty except insane" verdict finds a mentally ill defendant criminally liable but requires them to receive psychiatric treatment while imprisoned or to be placed in a mental hospital before later being moved to prison to carry out their sentence.

In 1994, the Arizona legislature altered its insanity defense, getting rid of the M'Naghten standard. The new standard said that an individual could plead "guilty except insane if at the time of the commission of the criminal act the person was afflicted with a mental disease or defect of such severity that the person did not know the criminal act was wrong."

In deviation from the M'Naghten standard, in Arizona you cannot plead "Not guilty by reason of insanity." Under State v. Mott, the Arizona Supreme Court held that, "Arizona does not allow evidence of a defendant's mental disorder short of insanity to negate the mens rea elements of a crime." Mens rea simply means "guilty mind." Mens rea is the mental element of an offense that accompanies the actus reus (guilty act).

What Happens After this Plea is Made?

After a defendant makes this plea, he/she is usually sent to a state mental health facility, a county mental health evaluation and treatment facility or another mental health facility for up to 30 days. Upon arrival, experts will examine the defendant to see if he/she is truly insane. These individuals are licensed specialists who are not only familiar with mental diseases, but familiar with state insanity statutes. After the experts have examined the defendant, they will submit a written evaluation to the court.

If the defendant is found "guilty except insane," the judge will sentence the defendant to a term of prison in the state department of corrections and will order that the defendant be placed under the jurisdiction of the psychiatric security review board and committed to a state mental health facility under the department of health services. 

If you or a loved one would like to better understand whether an insanity defense may be applicable to your case, contact our office to schedule an evaluation of your case with an experienced Phoenix mental health attorney.   

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