Not Guilty Or Guilty By Reason of Insanity

The insanity defense, (Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity-NGRI), also known as the mental disorder defense, has been traced to the Code of Hammurabi dating back to 1772 BC and has gone through numerous transformations. Most states have roots in the McNaughton Rule (Right from wrong at the time of offense due to a severe mental disorder). In insanity cases, the burden is placed on the defense and the weight of evidence is usually by a preponderance. The Federal Standard is slightly different in that the defendant did not appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his behavior due to a severe mental disorder. The weight of evidence is also slightly different by clear and convincing evidence.

The Federal Standard allows for an insanity defense that might otherwise not be successful in a state trial. I had the opportunity to participate in a NGRI defense in which the defendant had Asperger’s Disorder. The judge took into consideration that the defendant could not appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his behavior due to his disorder.

NGRI Example & Lessons Shared

 In the Andrea Yates case, it was all but impossible to get a plea because the public official opined in the press 24 hours after the incident that Ms. Yates was sane. The point being that once a public position has been taken by the prosecution or defense, this position militates against a plea.

Another footnote, in this case, was the fact that the District Attorney asked that she be indicted as Capital Murder case and therefore obtained a death-penalty-qualified jury. This puts the defense is a much more tentative position. Instead of trying to obtain a NGRI or innocence verdict, their goal becomes more realistically to obtain a murder conviction without the death penalty. During the first trial, Ms. Yates was found guilty of murder but the jury decided against the death penalty and opted for life imprisonment.

Of note, the case was overturned because the expert for the Prosecution testified that Ms. Yates had copycatted a television episode in which a woman had drowned her children. However, the appellate court ruled that the television episode never existed and the expert’s report had inappropriately prejudiced the jury to convict Ms. Yates. The appellate court overturned the conviction.

During the second trial, the DA did not ask for a death penalty sentence and Ms. Yates was found NGRI, at least in part, due to a jury that was no death-penalty qualified.  The Prosecution expert also did not testify about the copycat behavior that Ms. Yates reportedly imitated in the first trial.

The Yates case could have had another twist as the DA only prosecuted Ms. Yates for the death of three out of the five children that she drowned. Speculation from senior criminal defense lawyers reported that the DA held back on prosecuting all of the children at the same time as if the prosecution lost the trial, she could then be re-indicted for the death of the two children that were not included in the first indictment.

Another difficulty in trying an insanity case is the fact that the public assumes that if an individual is found NGRI he will walk out the door ‘scot-free’. In reality, in the overwhelming majority of cases, individuals who are found NGRI are usually hospitalized in a state hospital for a time period that can exceed the amount of time than if they were actually found guilty of the crime that they were charged. Law prohibits juries from being educated as to the consequences to individuals who are found NGRI.

I had the opportunity to participate in an insanity case, in which the jury believed that the defendant was NGRI. However, the jury was concerned that the defendant would have been released and then walked out of the court if they found him NGRI. They instead opted for a less than charged conviction as they believed the conviction would have required some treatment time for the defendant while incarcerated.

In this particular case, had the defendant been found NGRI, he would have probably spent a greater amount of time in treatment in a hospital, than if the jury had found him guilty of the crime as originally charged.

Many times NGRI pleas are withdrawn prior to trial as part of a plea agreement. I had the opportunity to be retained by the prosecution in Florida in a Capital case in which both defendants were originally charged with killing the creator of Curious George, the cartoon character. They both initially pleaded and then withdrew their NGRI defenses as part of a plea agreement.

A little known fact is that individuals who are found  NGRI  and individuals with severe mental disorders who are found guilty of a crime are usually both treated in inpatient psychiatric facilities-begging the some of the differences between being found guilty or NGRI.

One big difference between an outcome of NGRI and a conviction is that the NGRI acquittee does not receive a criminal record and an individual found guilty does receive a criminal conviction.

Less than 1% of proceedings are pleaded insanity and less than one fourth of these are found insane. These statistics may not account for pleas that are agreed to prior to indictment and the decreasing interest of prosecutors to prosecute insanity cases.  Critics argue that some defendants misuse it, effectively faking insanity for less severe convictions. While many others view it unpopular to find mentally ill people guilty.

Other reasons insanity defenses are so rarely entertained are due to their

  1. Complexity
  2. Possible longer time spent in a hospital if found NGRI then if found guilty of the crime

Forensic psychiatric experts, who are retained by the prosecution and defense, should be encouraged to share their results prior to trial.