The insanity defense is a controversial and often misunderstood part of the criminal system. In fact, it's rarely raised and very rarely successful. It's not the "get out of jail free" card that some believe it to be.
When defendants plead not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), they are asserting an affirmative defense—that is, they admit that they committed a criminal act, but seek to excuse their behavior by reason of mental illness that satisfies the definition of legal insanity. People who are adjudged to have been insane at the time they committed a crime are neither legally nor morally guilty.
Pleading insanity isn't the same as pleading guilty. A jury will typically decide if the defendant has proven their insanity claim, which is a process similar to many other affirmative defenses. When a defendant raises the insanity defense, a jury may reach a verdict of guilty, not guilty, or not guilty by reason of insanity.
Defendants must inform prosecutors prior to trial if they plan to rely on an insanity defense. Typically, defense lawyers and prosecutors each obtain their own psychiatrists to examine a defendant and testify at trial. Judges appoint government-paid psychiatrists for indigent defendants.
Defendants typically have the burden of convincing judges or juries by either a preponderance of the evidence or by the tougher standard of clear and convincing evidence that they were insane at the time they committed a criminal act. Evidence rules forbid defense psychiatrists from testifying to an opinion that a defendant was legally insane at the time a crime was committed. They can only provide a medical diagnosis concerning a defendant's mental illness.
No, the two are related concepts but very different procedures. Pleading insanity looks at the defendant's mental capacity at the time of the crime. Competency to stand trial applies at the time of the trial.
All defendants must be competent to stand trial. It's a constitutional requirement. Defendants must be able to assist in their defense, meaning they must understand the nature of the criminal proceedings. A judge (not a jury) will decide whether a defendant is competent to stand trial.
If a defendant is deemed not competent, the judge suspends the trial and typically commits the defendant to a mental health facility for treatment. Once the defendant regains the capacity to stand trial, the proceedings resume.
As noted above, it's usually up to the defendant to prove insanity. The American justice system has struggled with the appropriate insanity test since the 1800s. And it continues to struggle for a method to distinguish offenders whose mental illness is so severe that society should deem them not morally responsible for their behavior, from offenders whose actions, while perhaps objectively irrational, nevertheless merit punishment. Over the decades, five tests have developed to "define" legal insanity.
Many states define legal insanity according to the M'Naghten test, developed in an 1843 English case. An offender is insane under this test if mental illness prevents the offender from knowing the difference between right and wrong.
Some states supplement the M'Naughten test with the irresistible impulse rule, under which offenders are insane if a mental disorder prevents them from resisting the commission of an illegal act that they know is wrong.
The Model Penal Code or ALI test is a revised version of the M'Naughten and irresistible impulse tests. Under the ALI test, a person is not responsible for their criminal acts if, at the time of the crime, they lacked substantial capacity to either:
Only used in New Hampshire, the product test provides that a person should be excused from criminal liability if their unlawful conduct was the product of a mental disease or defect. The test does not define "mental disease or defect."
The federal insanity defense uses various aspects of the other four tests. It's found in the U.S. Code. "It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any Federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts." (18 U.S.C. § 17.)
Defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity are rarely set free. Instead, they are almost always confined in mental health institutions. They may remain confined for a longer period of time than had they been found guilty and sentenced to a term in prison. States may compel defendants adjudged insane to remain in a mental health institution until they convince a judge that they are no longer legally insane.
Studies show that defendants offer an insanity defense in less than 1% of all felony cases and, within this 1%, are successful only about 25% of the time. Despite these low, low rates, insanity plea cases often receive intense media coverage—making it appear that NGRI verdicts are much more common than they really are. Some famous cases are described below.
John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. A jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent 35 years in a psychiatric hospital and 41 years under court supervision. In June 2022, a judge granted him unconditional release.
Andrea Yates drowned all five of her children in a bathtub, one by one. She had been treated previously for postpartum depression and psychosis. A psychiatrist testified that Yates believed killing her children would save them from Satan. A jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She remains hospitalized.
James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 70 more when he opened fire in a Colorado movie theater. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, which the jury rejected. A judge sentenced him to 12 consecutive life sentences (3,318 years in prison).