Mental Illness & Criminal Law: The Insanity Defense

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

(972) 369-0577

Not guilty by reason of insanity (“NGRI”) is a defense where the accused did not appreciate the difference between right and wrong because of their mental illness or impairment.

In Texas, though, the insanity must be a complete defense.  That is, the person’s criminal act must be entirely because of the insanity or whatever false delusion they were having.  If they even slightly had the ability to decipher right from wrong then the law does not allow for acquittal under the insanity defense.

Mens Rea

Most crimes have what the law calls a “culpable mental state.”  Mens Rea is latin for “guilty mind.”  When a person commits assault, murder, theft or runs an illegal casino – they do so with the culpable mental state which accompanies the crime.  That is, they either intend, know or in some instances are reckless as to whether the illegal result occurs.

A criminal charge punishes a criminal act when accompanied with a criminal mind – or so the theory goes.

An Insanity Defense Negates the Mens Rea

Where there is no guilty mind most cases would not allow a person to be ‘punished.’

Here is of how NGRI works or wouldn’t work:

  • Where someone is under the delusion the world is under attack by aliens – and Wal-Mart has graciously opened their doors so that everyone can grab whatever supplies they need and run for the hills… this could be an insanity defense for theft because under the person’s delusion, they are still not committing theft.  Wal-Mart authorized them to take the supplies given the circumstances.
  • Where a person is under the delusion the newspaper delivery person is a North Korean soldier flinging a grenade a their house – and the person returns fire in self defense, they could actually be acquitted due to NGRI because if that delusion were true, the defendant wouldn’t be committing a crime.
  • On the flip side — let’s say someone heard voices in their head which were unrelenting telling them to take supplies from Wall-Mart for whatever reason.  This might not be NGRI because the person still knew taking was wrong.

There are many more variations and real world examples can be both far fetched at times and in other instances gruesome and tragic.

What Happens When the Court Finds Someone Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity?

The Court retains jurisdiction over the person.  The person can often times be committed to a State Hospital where they can be treated or restored.

The period for restoration cannot exceed the maximum punishment.  But in some instances like in murder cases – that could result in lifetime confinement in a State Hospital.

A person acquitted based on an insanity defense cannot expunge their record – so public records would always remain about their situation.

Misnomers About the Insanity Defense

Texas puts the burden on the accused to prove insanity.  It can also only be done where Defense has expert testimony from a professional who can establish the person could not in any way decipher right from wrong.

Many folks understandably get upset with people who plead insanity or are acquitted due to insanity and see it as an easy escape hatch to avoid consequences.   NGRI is a difficult mountain to climb for criminal defendants, though, and the reward for winning is normally going to a State Hospital for an undetermined amount of time plus a permanent criminal record – though not necessarily a conviction.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.

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