What is the Insanity Defense?

Judge gavel and scale in court representing insanity defense

Almost everyone has heard about the insanity defense, but not a whole lot of people understand what exactly it is and how it works. Popular movies like Primal Fear make it look as though if a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity, then it is automatically a get-out-of-jail-free card. Because of that misconception, we often have people contact us and believe that they can claim the insanity defense, especially if the person was under the influence of a controlled substance at the time of the alleged crime.

The harsh reality is that in the criminal defense world, trying to assert an insanity defense is a very dangerous game. Many junior or inexperienced lawyers want to automatically assert the insanity defense, especially if the underlying charge is something incredibly serious, like murder. There are actually two things that must be considered when proposing an insanity defense: 1) competency and 2) the person’s mental state during the alleged crime.

Competency is very straightforward. The major question is whether the accused is mentally capable of assisting his attorney in preparation of the defense, and therefore being certain that a person is competent to stand trial. In other words, the key question is whether the client understands what is going on. That is a completely separate issue from whether the insanity defense applies.

Mississippi’s rules of criminal procedure are very clear that a person’s competency to stand trial is completely separate from whether a person was sane at the time of an alleged defense. Both competency and sanity require that there be a mental evaluation of the defendant. But whereas a competency evaluation determines whether the client understands what is going on, a sanity evaluation goes much deeper. It is at the sanity evaluation stage that an inexperienced lawyer makes a key mistake.

The biggest problem with asserting insanity, and therefore having a sanity evaluation, is that to assert the defense, a defendant and his lawyer are effectively admitting that the person committed the crime, but that the defendant suffered from such a mental disorder that they could not understand the gravity of their actions or the consequences. Not only that, but when the person goes for their mental evaluation, they must reveal all of the details of the underlying crime, and that information must be turned over to the prosecution if the lawyer continues to assert the insanity defense. The next biggest problem is that an inexperienced lawyer may not understand the legal hurdle that they have to overcome for a client to be found insane. While a person is presumed innocent until found guilty by a jury, Mississippi law also explains that a person is presumed sane. In other words, the burden shifts to the defendant to overcome the presumption of sanity, which means that at a trial, the jury is likely to learn that the defendant did in fact commit the crime, and the jury must then determine whether the person was insane at the time of the alleged crime.

So, that raises the question: if a lawyer is successful at trial by asserting the insanity defense, what happens to the defendant? Even if a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the jury must still determine whether the defendant has been restored to sanity and whether that person is a danger to the community. If the person is still considered insane and thought to pose a danger to the community, then at that point, the judge would place the defendant into the state mental hospital until the person “has been restored to sanity and is no longer dangerous to the community.” In other words, just because a person may be found not guilty, does not mean that they are free to go home.