Given the fact that it is rarely used, and even more rarely successful, the insanity defense has been the subject of more outrage and concern than it really merits. Dozens of movies, TV shows, and novels have used the insanity defense and the sense of outrage that its use tends to raise in lay persons have only contributed to the notion that insanity defenses are a way for particularly clever criminals to commit a terrible crime and escape punishment.
Fact vs. Fiction
The reality is significantly different. The use of an insanity defense has always been infrequent and, in the rare cases where it has been successfully used, the result is often the commitment of the individual to a mental institution. Confinement in a mental institution may be as restrictive, or even more so, than imprisonment in the penal system and, unlike a prison sentence, the person may be held indefinitely.
Regardless of these facts, the public's concern about the insanity defense has made it more difficult than ever before for the defense to be used successfully. Furthermore, the inadvisable use of the defense by criminal defendants has resulted in a narrowing of the definitions relating to the defense and a general skepticism directed at defendants who use the defense.
Commentators have noted that the insanity defense is risky for criminal defendants because it virtually eliminates any possibility that prosecutors will agree to a plea bargain. Studies, including an eight-state investigation by the National Institute of Mental Health, have shown that the insanity defense is raised in less than one percent of all felony cases. This defense is successful in only a fraction of those cases.
Nevertheless, when the insanity defense is raised, it continues to spur controversy. For instance, in 2001, Andrea Yates of Texas, who allegedly suffered from a mental illness, drowned her five children in less than an hour. At her trial for capital murder, Yates' attorneys pleaded the insanity defense, arguing that she suffered post-partum depression. A jury rejected this argument and found her guilty. She received a life sentence for the murders.
The public showed great interest in the Yates trial. Some members of the public, especially but not limited to women's groups, sympathized with Yates due to her battle with post-partum depression. At her trial, four out of five psychiatrists and one psychologist testified that Yates did not know right from wrong. However, the single mental health expert called by the prosecution testified that Yates indeed knew right from wrong, and the jury eventually rejected her insanity defense. Facts later revealed that the state's expert had presented false testimony regarding Yates, and a Texas appellate court later reversed her conviction and ordered a new trial.
The Yates case demonstrates that in some instances the insanity defense can garner some support. Nevertheless, such a defense is still difficult to prove, and states have not made significant efforts to revise their versions of the insanity defense in recent years.
Questions About Insanity Defenses? Ask a Qualified Attorney Near You
The insanity defense is complicated and, unless properly presented, may result in hostility from the prosecution, the jury, and the community as a whole. The advice and assistance of an experienced attorney can help ensure that the defense is carefully prepared and presented. Contact a local criminal defense attorney today to learn more about the defense options that can apply in your case.