Guilty But Insane? Must Be An Election Year…

If I didn’t know better I might suggest that the state legislators in Massachusetts who are now pushing a bill that would bar accused murderers from pleading, and/or being found "not guilty by reason of insanity" should also be the ones having their heads examined. However, I know this proposed bill is nothing less than pandering to voters during an election year because, after all, there isn’t much of a support-lobby for violent criminals suffering from mental disease or defects. Nonetheless, purport of the legislation changing the wording of a pro-insanity verdict to "guilty except insane" is as patent an election-year grandstand as it is an open reflection on the profound ignorance of those legislators who are now championing it. The standard for an insanity defense in Massachusetts and most other states is "whether, as a result of mental disease or defect, a defendant lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his behavior to the dictates of the law." In other words under applicable law, "a person is not responsible for his criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct [e.g., murder], as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or conform his conduct to the requirements of the law." Because of this, those of us who are experienced in insanity cases properly proceed on the basis of "lack of criminal responsibility" (which is an entirely different proposition from "lack of mental competency") when an affirmative defense of insanity may be both viable and applicable. Arbitrarily changing the verdict sheet to "guilty except insane" would not only be inconsistent with, but would stand in stark contradiction to, the central issue of criminal responsibility, or better said, the lack thereof. Yes, in most (but not all) insanity cases, the factual bases of the underlying allegations are not challenged, but that does not change the prosecution’s burden of proof once the issue is raised by the defendant "of proving the sanity of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt". If they do, the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged (absent the possibility of lesser-included verdicts for some charges upon proof of diminished capacity; but not in all states). If they don’t, the defendant is not guilty as a matter of law. Period; and any efforts to change this will not only undercut nearly 200 years of jurisprudence on a complex and ever-evolving issue (given continuing scientific advances and improved understanding in the field of mental health), but utterly confuse well-intentioned jurors who will be forced to make a critical decision that has neither bearing on, nor association with, the judicial guidance they will be given in the form of standard jury instructions. The law on insanity is difficult enough as it is, and juror’s obvious struggles with insanity defenses—pro-insanity verdicts are rare—are so common and frequent that there is no reason to confuse things further with the uninformed meddling the proposed legislation presents, except to help proponents look tough on crime. Unfortunately, if successful, as with all such endeavors, after the elections are over, they will be leaving those of us in the criminal justice system with a head-scratching mess to try to clean up. Here’s an idea: If they are really sincere about this and/or really bothered about insanity defenses, why don’t they instead lobby for better mental health screening, evaluation and/or forensic psychiatric training for mental health providers involved in the process? Or heck, even as a defense attorney with a vested interest in taking advantage of inexperience on the opposite side, I wouldn’t have a problem with expansive training for prosecutors likely to handle such cases in order to promote the best interests of justice. No votes in any of that you say? There’s a surprise. I guess I must be crazy thinking logic might prevail. As I said, it is an election year, after all.

If you have been accused of a crime and you need a lawyer to represent you please contact Brad Bailey at 781-589-2828