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What is Insanity?

Insanity, often referred to as criminal responsibility, evaluations are an examination of the defendant’s mental state and capacities at the time of the alleged offenses. These evaluations are typically requested when there are concerns the defendant’s alleged criminal behaviors may have been the result of a mental disorder and the defendant was not criminally responsible. Individuals found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect (or insanity) are typically acquitted of their criminal charges. Depending on the nature of the charges and jurisdiction, the defendant may instead be committed to a hospital or other facility pending an evaluation of dangerousness or violence risk. The specific nature of the capacities of concern is dependent upon the jurisdiction in which the evaluation is performed.

For the state of Arkansas, per ACA § 5-2-328, the evaluation is focused on “whether as the result of a mental disease or defect the defendant at the time of the alleged offense lacked the capacity to appreciate the criminality of his or her conduct or to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law.” Texas law, per the Texas Penal Code § 8.01, states the defendant is insane when “at the time of the conduct charged, the actor, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, did not know that his conduct was wrong.” As a third point of comparison, federal law codified at 18 U.S.C. section 17 states the defendant is insane when, “At the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts.” As can be seen, while the general underlying principles are similar, the manner in which the concept of insanity is applied differs considerably. As an example, a defendant who believes their action was morally right but still illegal may be found insane in Texas and under federal law but found sane under Arkansas law.

The nature of an evaluation designed to assess for whether a defendant is insane at the time of the alleged offense(s) will be based primarily on several sources of information. First, nearly all such evaluations include a clinical interview with the defendant. The evaluator will explore the defendant’s memories for the time of the alleged offense including their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Questions often relate to expectations, intentions, purpose, beliefs, attitudes, considerations, symptoms, and decision-making at that time. The evaluator will also carefully consider all available information about the time of the alleged offenses. This may include collateral records such as treatment, hospital, school, work, or military records around the time of the offense. Also considered are the contents of the prosecution’s discovery which may include witness statements, drug test results, police summaries of the evidence and the crime, photographs, dash cam and body cam video footage, and videos of the defendant shortly after arrest when interrogated. Evaluators may also contact witnesses, family members, police or correctional officers, or other relevant individuals to learn more about the defendant’s mental state around the time of the offense. Although psychological testing may be useful, in many cases it takes a secondary level of importance to the previously described sources of information. Data gathered for the evaluation is then synthesized and applied to the specific statutory jurisdiction in which the defendant is charged.

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1 Comment

Paul B.
Paul B.
Dec 31, 2021

Well said! I enjoyed the read.

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