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Forensic Psychology: Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity - Establishing the Defense

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:51pm

What is important for people to understand is that, just like with competency to stand trial, the presence of a mental health issue is not sufficient to be found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). Of course, the presence of a significant mental health problem is necessary, but that alone is not enough to be found not guilty. The mental health issue must be severe enough that, depending on the statute, the defendant’s cognitive abilities or volitional abilities must be impaired to the point where the individual is not held accountable for their actions. Again, on the federal level, only the cognitive prong is applicable. Therefore, if a defendant is suffering from a mental illness to the extent their cognitive capacity was impaired to the threshold level, the individual will be deemed (by the Court, not the evaluator!) To be “not guilty,” from a legal perspective.

The individual, however, is not simply free to go. Defendants found to be NGRI are generally held via a civil commitment. This will occur at a psychiatric facility, where there will be an evaluation for dangerousness, conducted by mental health professionals (a whole ‘nother topic for another time). The important point here is to note that, with rare exception, individuals who are found to be NGRI are not simply “getting off.” I’ll go into the statistics in a future post, but this type of defense is rarely attempted, and when it is, it is rarely successful. The threshold for meeting the criteria is so high, it is generally not worth attempting this defense unless a defendant does have serious issues. The philosophy behind having a defense such as this is that, given the individuals condition (and, as noted earlier, a lack of free will as defined by the law), punishment would not serve as a deterrent. In addition, we tend to want to hold people accountable for volitional acts. Again, think about this idea from the perspective of children - we do not hold children accountable in the same way we hold adults accountable; they are not considered to be acting from a point of informed choice. Similarly, individuals who are so impaired from a severe mental health problem that they do not understand the nature of their actions are not considered liable in the same way as an adult who does understand their nature and quality of their behavior.

It should also be noted that when this defense is asserted, mental health professionals are almost always utilized for the purpose of evaluating the defendant. However, in contrast to a competency evaluation (which focuses on an individual’s current functioning), the role of the mental health professional in a sanity evaluation is to evaluate the mental health of the defendant at the time of the alleged offense. Remember, these are two separate legal issues, with very different consequences. Competency to stand trial has to do with a defendant’s current ability to understand the legal proceedings against him/her, and to participate in his/her defense. Responsibility (or sanity) evaluations have to do with the defendant’s mental health functioning at the time the act was committed. A defendant can be found incompetent to stand trial, but sane at this time of the offense, or any of the other combinations.

One other point to consider, and it is extremely important for mental health professionals. The evaluator can provide evidence and information regarding a defendant’s mental health functioning at the time of the offense, including diagnostic impressions, functional capacities, etc. However, the term “sanity” is a legal term, has a very specific legal definition, and the final determination of sanity (or lack thereof) is within the province of the court, not of the evaluator. The evaluator provides the information, the judge (or jury) makes the determination.

Next up - some statistics, and an introduction to some more specific standards for the NGRI evaluation.

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