Florida’s Insanity Defense Explained

June 29, 2021 Criminal Defense

The insanity defense is one of the most well-known defenses in pop culture. Famous insanity defense cases include the trial of notorious serial killer Jeffery Dahmer who pled not guilty by reason of insanity, Kenneth Bianchi, better known as serial killer “The Hillside Strangler” who feigned a mental illness in custody in the hopes of raising an insanity defense, and John Hinckley, Jr., who shot former United States President Ronald Reagan, and claimed that he was so deeply in love with Jodie Foster that it made him mentally insane.[1] While these cases make the insanity defense seem like an “insane” approach to criminal trials, it is still used and available to criminal defendants to this day.

What is the Insanity Defense?

The insanity defense does not attempt to state that the criminal defendant did not commit the criminal acts in question. The insanity defense, instead, purports that the criminal defendant is not “culpable” or blameworthy for their conduct because of their mental health issues. If someone successfully puts forth an insanity defense, they will be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and will be committed to a mental institution instead of jail or prison.

How Does the Insanity Defense Work in Florida?

The insanity defense is explained and codified in Section 775.027 of the Florida Statutes. It states that all people are presumed to be sane, and that insanity can serve as an affirmative defense if it is established that:

  1. The defendant was suffering from some kind of mental illness, disease, infirmity, or defect, and
  2. Due to this condition,
    1. The defendant did not know what they were doing, or the consequences involved, or;
    2. The defendant knew what they were doing and the consequences but could not grasp that the actions were wrong.[2]

The burden of proof to prove the defense of insanity is by “clear and convincing evidence,” which means that the evidence shows that it is more likely than not that a certain fact is true.[3]

What Will Happen if I Plead Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity?

In cases of insanity defense, Florida law requires a two-part trial. The two stages will include:

  1. The court determining the guilt of the criminal defendant, and
  2. If the criminal defendant is found guilty, the court will allow the case to proceed to trial, where the criminal defendant’s claim of insanity will be assessed by the jury.

If the criminal defendant is acquitted by reason of insanity, they will be sent to a mental institution, or another similar program, to receive treatment relating to their illnesses, defects, infirmities, and case details. Interestingly, those acquitted by way of insanity can receive longer mandatory admittances into mental institutions than the prison sentences they would have received. 

How Do I Prove My Insanity Defense?

Due to the nature of proving insanity, it will most like come to a “battle of the experts.” This means that the defense and the prosecution will bring mental health expert witnesses on board to evaluate the criminal defendant claiming insanity, and have reports prepared. Then, at trial, the experts would testify as to the findings in their reports, and the jury will make a determination upon this testimony, other witness testimony, and the evidence presented.

How Can Pumphrey Law Help?

Mental illness is incredibly prevalent in today’s society. With the increase of constant stimuli, exposure to triggers, and other factors, many adults in America suffer from some form of mental illness.  However, mental illness is still stigmatized, and the insanity defense is difficult to prove at trial for this reason. That is why it is incredibly important to consult with a seasoned and experienced Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer familiar with the insanity defense if you or a loved one has been charged with a crime. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm will provide aggressive and constant support to you or a loved one going through a criminal proceeding and will examine every possible applicable defense. Call a defense attorney today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss options available to yourself or a loved one during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

This article was written by Gabi D’Esposito

gabi d'esposito pumphrey law









[1] Other Notorious Insanity Cases, PBS.org, available at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/crime/trial/other.html.

[2] § 775.027, Fla. Stat. (2020). This test is also referred to as the M’Naghten Rule.

[3] Id.; Clear and Convincing Evidence, Cornell Law School, available at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/clear_and_convincing_evidence.

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