The Truth About the Insanity Defense

Many people have heard about the insanity defense – the verdict known as Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity. But what does this verdict actually mean?

What it does not mean, is that the defendant walks away free, without consequence.  This misconception is an important one, as it is easy to assume people can “get off the hook” so to speak, for a crime. 

The Meaning of Insanity

In this context, insanity is a legal term. The insanity defense helps protect morally blameless persons from convictions. It helps ensure the fairness of the legal system.

The Test for Insanity

The test for insanity is not written into the Virginia code. Instead, case law has developed the test, which states that:

  1. As a result of mental disease or effect:
  2. The defendant did not understand the nature, character, and consequences of his or her act; OR
  3. Was unable to distinguish right from wrong; OR
  4. Was unable to resist the impulse to commit the act.

A mental disease or defect is a disorder that “substantially impairs the defendant’s capacity to understand or appreciate his conduct.”

The insanity defense looks to the defendant’s mental state at the time the crime was committed, not at the time of the trial. The bar for this defense is very difficult to meet, as many conditions must be met to put on a successful insanity defense. The defense has the burden of proving insanity.

Steps of the Insanity Test

Prior to trial, the defense requests a mental health evaluation and gives notice of its intention to seek a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict at least 21 days prior to the start of the trial. An evaluator is appointed to conduct an in-depth interview of the defendant to determine if the defendant was in fact “insane” at the time of the offense.  Then, the Commonwealth has the opportunity to request a second evaluation, if it so chooses.

What Happens after Someone is Found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity?

It is a common misconception that a person who is found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity is released without consequence. This is not true.

In Virginia, although there are no criminal penalties, individuals who are found not guilty by reason of insanity are hospitalized for indefinite periods of time.  The individual will be evaluated by one psychiatrist and one clinical psychologist within 45 days of his or her entry into the hospital.  The doctors will then return a report to the court, giving a recommendation about the individuals mental state, potential danger to him/herself and the community, and whether or not additional hospitalization is needed.    

The average length of hospitalization in Virginia is 6.5 years, but many will spend much longer than this in the hospital. Sometimes, the individual will even spend more time in the hospital than they would have spent in jail had they been convicted of the offense.

For more information about the insanity defense in Virginia, visit the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services website.

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime, no matter the circumstances, call the experienced attorneys at Greenspun Shapiro today.

Anastasia T. Kranias
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