Insanity as a defense to criminal chargesinsanity as a defense

This blog explores insanity as a defense to criminal charges. This is distinguishable from the defenses of mental infirmary and diminished capacity. It is also distinguishable from being incompetent for purposes of assisting in your own defense.

When can you use insanity as a defense in criminal defense?

The insanity defense is a defense to criminal charges. A criminal defendant using insanity as a defense would not be suggesting that he did not commit the act that he is accused of committing. Rather, he would be trying to show that although he did commit the act, his behavior is legally excusable due to his insanity. In a way, the insanity negates the mens rea (a specific “guilty” state of mind) required to hold a person culpable for a criminal act.

What must you show be found “not guilty by reason of insanity”?

A criminal defendant must show that 1) They had a mental defect (insanity) at the time that they committed the crime and 2) the mental illness rendered the defendant unable to understand that the act that they committed was “wrong”. If the defendant can distinguish right from wrong at time of the act, it does not matter how “crazy” he or she is. For example, even if a defendant argues that “God told me to kill that person”, as long as the defendant knew that killing a human is wrong, this is not the appropriate defense for that criminal defendant.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is on the defendant. This is different than what we typically see in criminal defense. The burden of proof typically remains with the state throughout a criminal defense trial. However, when asserting an affirmative defense such as insanity, the burden to prove the defense lies with the criminal defendant.

When must a defendant give notice of his intent to argue insanity as a defense?

A defendant must file a notice of his intention to use this defense within a reasonable time BEFORE trial.

What if a criminal defense lawyer wants a defendant to assert this defense, but the defendant does not wish to?

This situation can come up. Consider this – the criminal defense lawyer feels that it is in the client’s best interest to assert an insanity defense, but the defendant does not wish to assert this defense. Who wins? When it comes to the asserting the insanity dense, the criminal defendant gets the final say. So, if a defendant does not consent to the use of this defense, the defense attorney cannot use it.

How does this work and what happens to the defendant if she succeeds in this defense?

In appropriate cases, when the defense of insanity is properly raised, the jury will be given instructions on insanity. If the jury unanimously finds the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, they are not guilty – they are “acquitted”. The judge then must enter an order committing the defendant to a state mental health facility.

If you have been charged with a crime in North Carolina or South Carolina, call a criminal defense attorney to discuss your options and possible defenses.

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