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The Curious Case of the “Insanity Defense”

Over the last year, the news has begun to shed light on the effect that mental illness has on criminal cases. Florida has seen a few cases in the last year where the insanity defense has been raised; the two most noted cases involved one mother who attempted to drown her children in the ocean and another mother shooting her children. These extreme cases require the courts to decide: what do we do when a defendant pleads insanity? What should be considered fair punishment? Do we believe the defendant?

The Rare Nature of the “Insanity Defense”

The insanity defense is an extremely rare and difficult defense for a defendant to use. According to PBS’s research on insanity defense in the legal system, only about 1 percent of defendants attempt to use the defense. Even smaller is the number of cases where the insanity defense is actually persuasive.

What is the “Insanity Defense”?

The insanity defense is an affirmative defense where the defendant has the burden of proof to demonstrate evidence that during the violent moment or during the commission of the crime, he was insane at the time. “Insanity” has a specific meaning in the courts and jurisdiction determines what that definition means.

The “Legally Insane” Standard Nationwide: The “M’Naughten” Rule and Model Code

The “legally insane” standard is different nationwide. There are generally two schools of thought about what “legally insane” means. About half of the states, including Florida, utilize the “M’Naughten” rule, based on an attempted assassination case in the U.K. The standard requires that the defendant show with clear and convincing evidence that:

At the time of the commission of the crime:

  • the defendant had some mental defect or disease; and
  • did not know what his actions were, nor their consequences; or,
  • if he did know what his actions were and their consequences, that he did not know that they were wrong.

In some jurisdictions using the “M’Naughten” rule, the courts have acknowledged the “irresistible impulse” rule, which provides that even if the defendant knows that what he was doing was wrong, he could not stop himself from committing the offense.

The other, less restrictive, standard, the Model Code, utilized by 26 states, requires that the defendant prove that:

  • During the commission of the crime
  • The defendant had some mental defect or disease, and
  • He could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions, or
  • He could not curb his conduct to the confines of the law.

Procedural Issues of the “Insanity Defense” in Florida

In Florida, there are several procedural matters that are adjusted when the insanity defense is raised. The following are assessed by the Courts:

  • First, it must be determined whether the defendant is competent to stand trial. This is different from insanity at the moment of the commission of the crime. Competency requires that the defendant must have the requisite mental state to stand trial. To have this mental state, he must be able to understand that the proceedings are against him, that he is being tried for a crime and understands the consequences of being charged, the roles of the members of the court, and that he can effectively assist his attorney.
  • Second, the use of the insanity defense in Florida requires a bifurcated trial. This means that there are two phases to the proceedings. The first phase requires the court to decide whether the defendant is guilty of the crime he is being charged. If the defendant is found guilty, the second phase of the trial assesses whether the defendant’s affirmative insanity defense is valid. The defendant’s sentencing will be determined by the outcome of the second phase.

“Not Guilty by Insanity”: When the “Insanity Defense” Works in Florida, Then What?

In Florida, a defendant whose insanity defense is found to be valid may receive a verdict of “Not Guilty By Insanity.” Unlike other states, it is up to the discretion (rather than mandatory) of the courts to decide whether the defendant will be committed to an institution or some other type of sentencing. Those who are committed may end up being in a psychiatric institution for longer than what the average jail time would be given to another defendant charged with the same crime. Also, the defendant, once released, may be supervised for an undefined amount of time.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

The “insanity” defense is just one of the many affirmative defenses that a defendant may utilize to help minimize the consequences of his actions. Affirmative defenses require the defendant to prove that there was extenuating circumstances that limit the culpability of his crime. An experienced Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik can help advocate on your behalf and put forward sound arguments in support of your defense. Contact the Law Offices of Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation.

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