The Insanity Defense and Mental Health
Mental Illness can be a defense in Minnesota criminal cases in at least two ways. The M’Naghten insanity defense is the first: At the time of the act, the defendant labored under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act, or; if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong. Rule 20 of the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure addresses mental health defenses. These issues come up for every offense level. And they come up in both state and federal criminal cases.
Outdated insanity defense
The M’Naghten rule, insanity defense comes from the 1843 English M’Naghten case. Should we update it to reflect scientific understanding of mental illness? The Model Penal Code suggests an update.
It is an affirmative defense. That means the defense has the initial burden of asserting the insanity defense, and producing some evidence to support it. And then, the burden shifts. The prosecutor attempts to prove the defendant criminally responsible despite mental illness.
Some characterize the insanity defense as an excuse defense (as opposed to a justification defense). The defendant did it but criminal responsibility is excused, because the act was the product of a diseased mind.
Minnesota has codified the defense in Minnesota Statutes Section 611.026:
“No person having a mental illness or cognitive impairment so as to be incapable of understanding the proceedings or making a defense shall be tried, sentenced, or punished for any crime; but the person shall not be excused from criminal liability except upon proof that at the time of committing the alleged criminal act the person was laboring under such a defect of reason, from one of these causes, as not to know the nature of the act, or that it was wrong.”
Note the “or cognitive impairment” language and compare with the defense of extreme intoxication (vs. involuntary intoxication.)
Medication can restore Competency
The second way mental is a “Rule 20” issue in a Minnesota criminal case is the defendant’s Competency. A defendant is incompetent if lacking the ability to:
- rationally consult with legal counsel,
- understand the proceedings, or
- participate in the defense,
- due to mental illness, deficiency or other disability.
A defendant who is incompetent due to mental illness can often regain competency with anti-psychotic medications.
Rule 20 of the Minnesota Court Rules of Criminal Procedure
Rule 20.02 of the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure addresses the insanity defense; while Rule 20.01 addresses mental competency.
Time: symptoms active, or in remission?
The time period of the mental illness can be important. The insanity defense is concerned with “at the time of committing the act.” But competency to participate in legal proceedings relates to the defendant at the time of the legal proceedings.
A person can treat and alleviate their mental illness symptoms with psychiatric medications. It can take weeks, however, for the medications to reach a therapeutic level. Also, psychiatric physicians need time to find an effective medication for a patient.
Reconstructing past events based on available evidence is challenging but necessary. The insanity defense depends upon the defendant’s mental heath at the time of the alleged offense. The defendant’s current mental health does not matter.
But competency is all about now. Competency to participate in present and future court proceedings can often be restored with medications.
Mental Health issues come up in people’s lives and in criminal cases in other ways as well. Whether or not an accused person met the ancient standard of the M’Naghten rule; the person may have also have had diminished capacity.
Diminished capacity defense
The diminished capacity defense is a partial, negating defense. It negate the specific intent element of the state’s case (as opposed to “general intent”). The burden is on the prosecutor to prove that defendant’s state of mind. Again, it is less than a full, insanity defense.
A diminished capacity defense would normally mean the person is not-guilty of a more serious specific intent crime (intended result); but still guilty of the basic general intent crime. An example could be a delusional person incapable of intending the result, but capable of an intentional act. So, not guilty of premeditated murder, but guilty of murder.
Civil Commitment vs. Criminal Commitment
When a court “commits” person, the person loses their civil rights, including their liberty. The judge transfers them to the custody, care and control of the head of the prison, or of a state hospital.
If the legal basis for the commitment is mental illness under Minnesota Statutes Chapter 253B; then the result is a Civil Commitment Order.
But if the commitment is for a criminal sentence then the result is a Criminal Commitment Order. A criminal court commits the person to the care and custody of the Commissioner of Corrections.
Civil Commitment process
The civil commitment process can involve medical issues other than mental health. These include chemical dependency, withdrawal-induced psychosis, developmental disability, traumatic brain injury, dementia and other issues.
The court’s civil commitment process connects with the both the insanity defense and a competency defense in a criminal case. For example, under Rule 20.01 of the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure,
Subd. 6. Procedure After Competency Proceedings.
“(b) (1) Finding of Mental Illness. If the court finds the defendant mentally ill so as to be incapable of understanding the criminal proceedings or participating in the defense, and the defendant is under civil commitment as mentally ill, the court must order the commitment to continue. If the defendant is not under commitment, the court must commence a civil commitment proceeding. The court must supervise the commitment as provided in Rule 20.01, subd. 7.”
And, under Rule 20.02,
“Subd. 8. Effect of Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Illness or Deficiency.
(1) Mental Illness. When a defendant is found not guilty by reason of mental illness, and the defendant is under civil commitment as mentally ill, the court must order the commitment to continue. If the defendant is not under commitment, the court must commence a civil commitment proceeding and order the defendant to be detained in a state hospital or other facility pending completion of the proceedings. In felony and gross misdemeanor cases, the court must supervise the commitment as provided in Rule 20.02, subd. 8(4).”
The Rule 20 Examination
When defense counsel, the prosecutor, or the judge perceive mental health issues, the court can order a Rule 20 examination. This can happen at any stage in the court process.
The Rule 20 examination is a psychological or psychiatric assessment. The examiner will develop an expert opinion on Competency under Rule 20.01, or on an insanity defense under Rule 20.02.
The court will appoint a Rule 20 Examiner who is the court’s expert.
The defense has the right to retain another expert to develop an independent opinion on either or both issues. Eventually the judge may hold a hearing and rule on Competency or make initial determinations on a 20.02 insanity defense. The insanity defense may ultimately go to a jury.
The most common major mental illnesses are mood disorders (e.g., bipolar disorder) and thought disorders (e.g., schizophrenia).
Mental health issues can also influence a court’s sentence.
Stories in movies show mentally ill people as dangerous, and likely to use their medical problem to escape criminal responsibility.
In reality, however, people with mental illness are no more likely to be perpetrators of crime; but are vulnerable to criminal victimization. And people with mental illness often refuse to assert a mental illness or insanity defense even when obvious to others.
Insanity defense: Bifurcated criminal trial
If the defendant is competent, she has the right to a jury trial. If she makes an insanity defense; the jury decides whether she was not guilty by reason of insanity at the time. But the judge will conduct the trial in two parts. The judge bifurcates the trial.
In part one, the prosecutor will attempt to prove all of the elements of the crime charge, including criminal intent. If the jury concludes the defendant is guilty beyond doubt; then a second part to the trialbegins.
In part two, the defense attorney brings evidence that the defendant is not-guilty by reason of insanity at the time. The prosecutor has the burden of proving beyond doubt that the defendant is criminally responsible despite their insanity. Then the jury deliberates again on this issue.
The jury verdict in part two could be guilty or not-guilty by reason of insanity. If the verdict is not-guilty by reason of insanity, the judge will begin civil commitment proceedings.
Attorney Thomas Gallagher’s experience with Mental Health
Thomas Gallagher completed his undergraduate degree major at one of the best Psychology Departments, at the University of Minnesota. This included coursework in Abnormal Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Perception, Linguistics, Developmental (Child) Psychology, Statistics, and Industrial Psychology.
And Thomas Gallagher’s other experiences include:
- volunteer with Youth Emergency Service Hotline and Referral,
- Sociology Research Assistant on a Gender and Sentencing Study,
- Teacher-Therapist with a Minneapolis Children’s Hospital summer program for Exceptional Children, and
- intern for a major foundation studying non-profit Grantee Evaluation.
Since then, Thomas Gallagher has been a life-learner and student of Psychology, as well as Psychology and the Law.
For example, see: The Psychology of Juries < Book Review
For 13 years Gallagher was a panel lawyer in Hennepin County defending persons under Petition for Civil Commitment as Mentally Ill or Chemically Dependent. During that time, he visited every psychiatric hospital ward and detox center in the Twin Cities, and many beyond.
Thomas Gallagher still uses the latest version of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. He uses DSM-5 as an aid in understanding cases and best representing clients.
Attorney Thomas Gallagher raises the insanity defense and mental health issues for clients in criminal cases. He’s done so many times, over his 30 years practice.
Question? You can call Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer Thomas Gallagher at 612 333-1500.