How Does a Plea of Insanity Work?



How does a plea of insanity work? Well, for starters, it doesn’t. There is no doubt that mental illness and other forms of mental and emotional instability are rampant within the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been dedicating their efforts to studying these trends on a global perspective, and time and time again, Americans constitute the highest population with psychological imbalances. According to a statistic that has been found, 27 percent of Americans will experience some level of mental health disorder annually. These can include disorders of the mood, anxiety, ADD, ADHD, and substance abuse. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 15 percent of the United States population will also face challenges of personality disorders and schizophrenia. Furthermore, it has been noted that the average American has an astonishing 47.4 percent chance of facing some type of metal health disorder in their lifetime. However, it is import to keep in mind that these statistics may be skewed since the medical field within the United States is much more advanced than in other areas of the world.


With this being said, does that mean that more and more of our criminals can successfully plead Not Guilty by Reasons of Insanity (NGRI)? Bluntly put, no. A defense of insanity is essentially stating that due to mental illness a person was not able to decipher right from wrong, thus resulting in the occurrence of a crime. Many states take into account the presence of two fundamental elements to a crime, (1) mens rea (criminal intent), and (2) actus reas (criminal act). In order to assess if one can be convicted, the court must determine if a criminal act took place, firstly, and if a criminal intention was present. In regards to NGRI, the court aims to assess if one had the intention of committing the alleged crime and if he or she lacked the ability to refrain from committing it.


What does this mean? For example, if you have a heart attack while driving and accidently run someone where, you did not possess mens rea. For this reason, one would not be charged with let’s say, homicide. It is a similar thought process when evaluating someone for the presence of mens rea when committing a crime. If a person that suffers from extreme schizophrenia injuries another individual because he cognitively thought his life was in danger, this may potentially be viable grounds for a defense of insanity, on the basis of an inability to resist engagement.


“Insanity” is a legal term. It is not a psychological term. Just because many people that have allegedly committed crimes may certainly be facing ailments of mental instability, this does not justify the defense of insanity, nor does it make it any easier to successfully plead. Studies have found that up to 70 percent of those defendants that originally attempted to plead NGRI ended up withdrawing their plea after assessment deemed them to be legally sane. 0.85 percent of defendants plead guilty—no that is not a typo—less than one person out of 100 uses the insanity defense. Of this 0.85 percent, only 0.26 percent of those cases are successful. It is an extremely difficult legal standard for defense counsel to establish NGRI. More often it is used effectively as a mitigating factor when negotiating a diminished level of criminal culpability. It is more beneficial to use this as a compromising tactic between defense and prosecution in order to lessen the potential sentence that one can possibly be facing.


Many contend that the way in which the NGRI plea works is problematic in a number of areas. The foremost issue that weakens the insanity defense is related to the quality of the psychiatric evaluators conducting the assessment of the subject. National surveys have found that roughly 60 percent of states require an expert witness in NGRI determinations to be psychiatrist or psychologist. What does this mean? 40 percent of those testifying on behalf of the level of someone’s sanity are not even hold professional doctorates. Furthermore, only 20 percent of U.S. states require expert witnesses in these determinations to hold additional certifications to bolster the level of their capability. Finally, a shocking 12 percent of states require that their expert witnesses pass an examination prior to testifying. Having a doctorate in psychology or psychiatry does not necessarily qualify a person, nor does it make it “experts” within the criminal justice system. They are two different realms of practice that entail contrasting skill sets.


Keep in mind that if someone does successfully plead NGRI this does not mean that they exit the courtroom free of any degree of criminality of punishment. Many times they are held in a hospital until the outcome of their case and remain there after their conviction in order to carry out the remainder of their sentence. If a person is considered a threat to society, they will not be released into the general public until their mental stability and rehabilitation can be guaranteed or until they can no longer legally hold them within the hospital.