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Using the Insanity Defense in a Criminal Case

When people have been arrested and charged to court for criminal offenses, it is the job of their criminal defense lawyers to carefully evaluate their cases and their facts to determine the best line of action. Several defense strategies can be adopted in the interest of the criminal defendant. One uncommon and controversial defense strategy is the Insanity defense.

What is Insanity Defense?

When a person is faced with criminal charges, his or her criminal defense lawyer may choose to prove legal insanity at the time of committing the crime. For context, a person that is legally insane may not be liable for the criminal offense committed as they are regarded to have been out of touch with reality. In essence, for the insanity defense strategy, the criminal defense attorney moves to establish that their client, the defendant, had not acted in a conscious capacity.

The insanity defense is one of the rarely used defense strategies. A recent study showed that as little as 1 percent of criminal defendants facing felony charges defer to this defense strategy. Perhaps the more discouraging aspect of this defense strategy is its success rate. The insanity defense has a 25 percent chance of success. This means that every one in four criminal defendants who choose this defense strategy stand a chance of winning.

Criminal lawyers who have successfully defended their clients using this defense strategy have been compensated with a not-guilty verdict. A not-guilty verdict means that the client has been absolved of the criminal liability.

What does it mean to Plead Insanity?

When people hear of the insanity defense, it is natural to imagine a criminal defendant acting crazy before a court to prove their counsel’s case. However, it is never that simple. Using the insanity defense requires the defense counsel to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, using a body of evidence, that the defendant was legally insane when committing the crime. Being able to prove this means that the defendant had not acted consciously, deliberately, or even negligently.

The insanity defense is acceptable as a criminal defense strategy in the US. This is because the US laws require the establishment of an intent to commit a crime for a criminal conviction to be pronounced. However, with the insanity defense, the intent is eroded. The core of the defense strategy is to establish that the defendant had no criminal intent but committed the crime because of their mental condition or disease.

Proving Your Case Using the Insanity Defense

The burden of proof when using the insanity defense lies with the prosecuting counsel. However, this changed in 1982. Today, it is a requirement that the defense counsel must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the criminal defendant was indeed legally insane at the time of committing the crime.

The change in the party that bears the burden of proof came after the discharge and acquittal of John W. Hinckley, who was accused of attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. After the defendant was absolved of the crime based on the insanity defense, it was pronounced that the law, henceforth, required a shift in who bears the burden of proof.

In modern-day times, a criminal defense lawyer who wishes to adopt the insanity defense will be required to present evidence to back this defense strategy up. The goal isn’t to prove beyond a reasonable doubt but to present a body of clear and convincing evidence that establishes the defendant’s mental state at the time of committing the crime.

Establishing Insanity

The criminal justice system expects everyone to come with clean hands. To ensure this, the system has adopted four distinct tests to establish insanity on the defendant’s part. These tests can be used individually or in combination to strengthen further the body of evidence presented by the defense counsel. These tests to establish insanity defense include;

The M’Naghten Rule Test

This rule has become the commonest option for criminal defense attorneys who wish to establish the insanity defense. Commonly used worldwide, it holds that the defendant, at the time of committing the crime, could not clearly distinguish between right and wrong due to their mental illness or condition. If proven, this rule absolves the defendant of liability as they didn’t understand their actions and their consequences.

The Irresistible Impulse Test

This test seeks to establish that the defendant had committed the crime on an irresistible impulse due to the mental disease or condition from which they suffer. In essence, the defendant’s mental disease or condition had caused them to commit the crime or made it impossible to resist themselves from committing the criminal act.

The Model Penal Code Test

Here, the defense lawyer seeks to establish that the criminal defendant suffers from a mental disease or condition that makes it impossible for them to act lawfully and within the confines of the law. For this test, the defendant has to be proven to suffer a mental disease or disease that makes them ignorant of the consequences of their criminal actions.

The Durham Rule Test

This test applies only in New Hampshire. The defense counsel is required to prove that the defendant committed the crime only because of their mental disease, condition, or defect. For this test, the defense counsel will be required to establish that the defendant wouldn’t have committed the crime when sane.

While the insanity defense has worked for some, it has largely been a complex defense strategy for others. Some states across the US have frowned upon this defense strategy in a criminal proceeding. States like Montana, Kansas, Utah, and Idaho are against arguing for a no-guilty charge for a defendant using the insanity defense. In these four states, criminal defense lawyers are free to use the insanity defense; however, the defendant will be “found guilty but insane.” For a verdict like this, the defendant cannot walk free; instead, he or she will be institutionalized instead of being sent to prison.

Defending an accused person can be tricky. The key is to choose the right criminal defense lawyer who will, in turn, choose the appropriate criminal defense strategy. Get more information about criminal defense, hiring a criminal defense lawyer, criminal defense strategies, and more at

Lane, Hupp, & Crowley
111 W Monroe St Ste. 1216
Phoenix AZ 85003
(480) 562-3482

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If you have been charged with a DUI, drug charge, sex crime or any serious criminal offense, let an experienced defense team fight for you. Schedule a consultation with one of our partners today. Call (480) 562-3482 or send an email.