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Insanity Defense


The defense of insanity is an affirmative defense to a criminal offense if at the time of the offense a defendant was suffering from a severe mental disease or defect, which disease or defect rendered the defendant incapable of knowing that his or her conduct was wrong. The purpose of the defense is to determine whether the defendant should be held responsible for the offense. It only excuses the defendant’s conduct. It does not mean that the defendant did not commit the offense.

Although the definition of insanity means that a defendant was suffering from a severe mental disease or defect, the defendant’s insanity is not just a medical issue. It is a legal and a moral issue as well. Although a defendant may be insane from a medical viewpoint, the defendant may not necessarily be insane from a legal viewpoint. If the defendant’s mental disease or defect has not reached the point where the defendant did not know that his or her conduct was wrong, the defendant is considered to be sane from a legal viewpoint.

A defendant is presumed to have been sane at the time he or she committed an offense. The defense of insanity is an affirmative defense. This means that the defendant has the burden to prove that he or she was insane by a preponderance of the evidence. However, if the defendant has previously been adjudicated insane, the prosecution has the burden of proving that the defendant was sane beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, the defendant’s burden of proof with regard to his or her insanity does not override the prosecution’s burden of proving that the defendant committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

If a defendant plans to offer evidence of his or her insanity at trial, most states require the defendant to file a notice with the trial court and with the prosecution. The notice is usually required to be filed 10 days prior to the trial date or 10 days prior to a pretrial hearing. If the defendant’s notice is not timely filed, evidence regarding the defendant’s insanity is usually not admissible, unless good cause existed for the delay.

If a defendant files a notice of an insanity defense, a trial court may appoint a qualified mental health expert to examine the defendant. If the defendant refuses to be examined by the expert, the trial court may order the defendant into custody for purposes of the examination. The defendant may choose to be examined by his or her own mental health expert. The court-appointed expert is required to file a written report with the trial court within a certain number of days after his or her examination of the defendant. Copies of the report are provided to the defendant and to the prosecution. The defendant does not have a right to counsel during his or her examination by the court-appointed expert.

A defense of insanity may only be submitted to a jury at a defendant’s trial if it is supported by competent evidence. Neither the prosecutor, the defendant, nor the trial judge may inform the jury of the effect of a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity. The defendant’s state of mind before and after the offense may be offered as evidence of the defendant’s sanity. All relevant evidence is generally admissible. Evidence regarding the defendant’s sanity is normally introduced by expert testimony. An expert witness may testify about the medical issues regarding the defendant’s sanity. However, the expert witness cannot make a final determination of the defendant’s sanity. That issue is a question of fact for the jury.

If a defendant is found by a jury to be not guilty by reason of insanity, the defendant is acquitted of the offense with which he or she was charged. A trial court must then make a determination as to whether the defendant should be released, should be confined to a prison mental health unit, or should be referred for civil commitment proceedings. If the trial court finds that the defendant did not commit any act of serious bodily injury to another person but finds that the defendant is mentally ill or is mentally retarded, the trial court may transfer the defendant to an appropriate court for civil commitment proceedings, may release the defendant in the care of another person, or may discharge the defendant. If the trial court finds that the defendant committed an act of serious bodily injury to another person, the trial court retains jurisdiction over the defendant and must order the defendant to be committed to a maximum security unit of a prison facility until he or she is eligible for release. However, the defendant cannot be committed involuntarily to the prison facility for a period of time that exceeds the maximum sentence for the offense for which the defendant was tried unless civil commitment proceedings have been brought against the defendant.

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