Do You Have a Right to an Insanity Plea?

by dave on July 27, 2012

in Criminal Justice

The Constitution of the United States guarantees many different rights to us when we stand accused of a crime. One of these is the protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Attorneys representing an Idaho man say that this right is violated when a defendant is not allowed to use an insanity plea and they are hoping the Supreme Court will take up their cause next year.

According to the Washington Post, attorneys for John Joseph Delling say he did commit two murders but that he lacked the mental capacity to understand that they were wrong. Unfortunately for him, his case was tried in Idaho, one of a handful of states where there is no insanity plea allowed.

In the majority of states, you can plead “not guilty by reason of insanity” when you are accused of a crime. Then, it is up to your defense team to prove you did not understand the nature of your offense. But in four states (Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Utah), that option doesn’t exist.

These states did away with the insanity plea shortly after John Hinckley Jr. was acquitted for reasons of insanity in his attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Insanity please aren’t used often and they are only successful about one-fourth of the time, but attorneys for Delling maintain that if someone lacks the mental capacity to understand their offense, they shouldn’t be penalized in the same manner as someone acting with intent and knowledge of their actions.

Mens Rea is the legal term which means “guilty mind”. In one form or another, it’s a crucial component to criminal liability. In order to be found criminally responsible, a defendant has to know the gravity of his actions (in most cases). Someone who is mentally ill or “insane” might not have the ability to understand and therefore lacks mens rea.

The Constitutional Accountability Center and the American Psychiatric Association are supporting the efforts of Delling’s attorneys, hoping the Supreme Court will say once and for all that people should have the opportunity to plead not guilty by reason of insanity in every state as well as in federal cases.

An insanity plea is a difficult thing to prove. More often than not, even if you have mental illness or weren’t aware of what you were doing at the time, your case will not be resolved with a plea like this. But if you have a history of mental illness and are accused of a crime, you need experienced legal help to protect your rights in court.

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