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The insanity defense: a fundamental right or state’s choice?

Jun 21, 2020 | Criminal law

Not guilty by reason of insanity. It is a phrase that conjures more than just visions of a plotline from a criminal drama. It is one that seems a part of the fabric of our justice system — but is it? Not every state in the country currently allows an insanity defense. Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Utah, for example, have abolished it.

Is this constitutional? Shouldn’t everyone have the opportunity to defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing when mental health issues were a crucial factor that led to the charges?

These questions were recently explored by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).

What did SCOTUS discuss?

SCOTUS explored these questions through a case that involved a man charged with murder in Kansas. The accused presented expert testimony stating he was too depressed to stop himself from committing the crime. However, since Kansas does not have an insanity defense, the accused could not successfully make this argument. As a result, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

The accused appealed, arguing punishing the insane was cruel and unusual. He took the case to SCOTUS. The justices ruled in favor of the state, 6 to 3. The majority found each state has the power to determine the issue; the dissenters disagreed and unsuccessfully maintained the insanity defense was a fundamental right.

What does this mean in Texas?

Texas state law allows for the insanity defense. Those who use this defense must meet the M’Naghten Rule with the Irresistible Impulse Test. The M’Naghten Rule states the accused was unable to distinguish between right or wrong, that the accused did not understand what was happening. The Irresistible Impulse Test involves establishing the accused was unable to control impulses.

The burden is on the accused to meet this test.

Although current law allows this defense, the case above could signal the potential for change. It is important anyone charged with a crime stay abreast of any potential changes to better ensure a successful defense.