Most Americans are familiar with the insanity defense but few understand how it works, how a defendant may be found not guilty by reason of insanity, and what the outcome of such a ruling is. The insanity defense does not claim that the defendant is factually innocent, but rather, claims that the defendant did commit the criminal act, but is not legally culpable for his own conduct because of his or her poor mental health. A defense of insanity works different than other defenses, such as self-defense or justification. If someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he or she is not released but is committed to a mental institution. Though some might think that the insanity defense is a last-ditch attempt to avoid a prison sentence for people who are actually guilty, the reality is much different.
How the Insanity Defense Works in Florida
According to Florida law, all people are presumed to be sane. This means that the law assumes a defendant is sane, until that defendant can prove that he or she is not sane. The defendant bears the burden of proving his or her insanity, which he or she must prove by “clear and convincing evidence.”
There are many hurdles for a defendant who seeks to successfully mount an insanity defense. First, the defendant must show that the insanity existed at the time that the crime occurred. Because the insanity need only exist at the time the crime occurred, it is theoretically possible for a defendant to claim “temporary insanity” – that he or she was insane only for the short duration in which the crime was committed. It may also be that during trial, the defendant is found competent and sane (perhaps due to treatment) but may be able to mount an insanity defense based on his or her mental capacity at the time of the crime.
Secondly, the defendant must show that due to the insanity, she either (1) was not able to understand the consequences of her actions; or (2) understood the consequences of her actions but was not able to tell that what she was doing was wrong. This is also known as the M’Naghten rule, due to an old English trial from the 1800s that established a similar rule for claiming an insanity defense.
Not only must the defendant prove all the elements above, but she must do so by “clear and convincing evidence” – a rather high standard to meet. “Clear and convincing evidence” is higher than “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which is the standard used in civil cases, but lower than the State’s burden of proof in criminal cases, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Skepticism for Insanity Defense
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the insanity defense can be difficult to mount successfully; juries are often skeptical of the defense, and assume that defendants often claim the defense as a way to avoid responsibility for their actions. This skepticism makes it unlikely for a crafty defendant who is faking insanity to make a successful insanity defense. However, this may make it so difficult to achieve that some defendants, who were legally insane at the time of the crime, won’t be able to mount a successful insanity defense.
If you or your loved one is involved in a criminal proceeding, it is important to work with a seasoned and skillful attorney to understand your rights and options under the law. Contact the experienced Florida attorneys at The Baez Law Firm for a consultation today.