When Is a Person Legally Insane?
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When Is a Person Legally Insane?
The insanity defense is one of th emost controversial defenses. Additionally, it has one of the lowest success rates among all criminal defenses. Knowing about the insanity defense and when this defense may apply has the potential to help a criminal defendant who may be able to assert this defense.

Definition of Insanity

The definition of legally insane is a legal determination, not a psychological one. However, a psychological analysis plays into this. At times, a person may be considered psychotic but still not meet the legal definition of being insane. The legal definition of insanity varies by jurisdiction. Different states use different standards to determine if a person is legally insane. 

General Guidelines

The United States legal tradition is that if a person is unaware of what they are doing or that what they are doing is morally wrong, that person should not be held legally responsible for their behavior. For many crimes, a specific mens rea must be proven. This is a certain mental state as determined by the statute. One court ruling is that a person should only be determined to be guilty and receive sentencing if he or she had the free will to commit the crime and the intent to cause harm. 

Standard Used to Determine If a Person Is Legally Insane

Different states use different tests, such as: 

M’Naghten Test

Most states use what is called the M’Naghten test to determine if someone is legally insane. It is a cognitive test that assesses the thought processes and perceptions that the defendant had at the time that he or she committed the crime. According to this test, a person is considered legally insane if, at the time of the offense, he or she suffered from a defect of reason from a disease of the mind. Due to this mental disease, the defendant did not know that what he or she was doing was illegal or wrong. 

Some states that use the M’Naghten test have diverged somewhat from this criterial. For example, in Arizona, the law was revised so that the phrase “knowing the nature and quality of the act” was omitted. The United States Supreme Court approved this modification. 

Brawner Rule

Another popular test is the ALI standard or Brawner Rule. This test states a person is not responsible for what would otherwise be considered criminal conduct if he or she lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of the conduct because of a mental disease or defect. The rule excludes mental illnesses that are due to the defendant committing repeated criminal acts throughout his or her life. About 20 states use this standard. 

Durham Test

New Hampshire is the only state that uses the Durham Test. This test only requires the showing that the criminal act was a product of a mental disease or impairment. In this state, it is much easier to meet the definition of legal insanity due to not having to prove as much. Many practitioners interpret this test to mean that any mental illness diagnosis can be used to meet the mental impairment qualification. 

Burden of Proof
In a criminal case, the prosecution has the burden of proof of showing that the defendant committed each element of the crime by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution fails to meet this burden, the defendant should not be convicted. However, the burden of proof in a crimina case shifts to the defendant if he or she asserts the insantity defense. This means that the defendant has the duty to show that he or she is legaly insane. This applies to federal cases as well as most state cases. 

Legal Assistance

Due to the complexity and difficulty of proving that someone is legally insane, it is important that someone who is facing criminal charges seek competent legal representation. A criminal defense lawyer can review a case and determine if insanity is a viable defense. He or she can explain the standard that is used to determine whether the defendant will be considered legally insane in the state where the charges are pending. He or she will also take steps to defend the individual’s rights. If the individual is found not to be legally insane, the criminal defense lawyer may still try to use information related to the defendant’s mental health as a basis for a plea bargain or reduced sentence. He or she may also explore other defenses that are based on the particular circumstances involved in the case.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.
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