Insanity Defense – Most Famous Cases

May 14, 2022 Criminal Defense

In some special cases of a crime or attempted crime, the defendant may not been in the right mental state. The defendant may have not even have been aware of what they were doing, or that any consequences could arise with their actions. In this rare occurrence, the defendant may be able to claim the insanity plea.

The insanity plea may be able to get the defendant out of a guilty verdict, however, there are still additional consequences that can come out of an insanity plea. For one, the defendant may have to spend an extended period of time in a mental institution or go through mental exams over the years to ensure that another crime does not happen.

This blog will briefly cover what an insanity defense is, mental health experts, as well as a few of the most famous insanity defense cases in the United States.

What is the Insanity Defense?

Under Florida Statute Section 775.027, the insanity defense is defined as when the defendant is declared to have been insane at the time of the crime or attempted crime. It is important to note that the insanity defense does not attempt to claim that the defendant did not commit the crime in question. It instead supports the claim that the defendant was not “culpable” or blameworthy because of their mental state during that time. This is because most crimes require a guilty mind element in order to be successfully proven. In cases where the person can show that they lack this, they are able to instead ask the court to help them be rehabilitated instead of being punished.

The following must be established to confirm the defendant can claim insanity:

  • The defendant had a mental disease, infirmity, or defect; and
  • Due to the mental condition, the defendant:
    1. Did not have an understanding of what they were doing or the consequences of their actions; or
    2. Even if the defendant was aware of their actions and their consequences, the defendant did not have an understanding that their actions were wrong.

In the case that a defendant is acquitted due to an insanity plea, they may be sent to a mental institution after the case ends. This is the alternative to going to jail: the accused is forced to receive treatment for their mental illness. In some cases, the amount of time in a mental institution may even be longer than the original prison sentence.

It is up to the defendant to prove by clear and convincing evidence that they should be considered to have been insane at the time of a crime. In most situations, it is likely that a mental health expert witness will have to come into the case to help prove this affirmative defense. Having a skilled defense attorney can help with finding a strong mental health expert witness.

To find out more about the insanity defense explained, find our blog post here.

Unfit for Trial vs. Insanity during the Offense

It is important to understand the difference between being competent to stand trial, and the affirmative defense of insanity. When a person lacks capacity to understand the charges they are being charged with or are unable to communicate with their attorney in a rational way, the court may find the defendant to be unfit to stand trial.

Under Florida Statute Section 916.12, a person lacks the capacity to proceed in a criminal trial and is therefore not competent when:

  1. The Defendant currently lacks the ability to consult with their attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, or
  2. The Defendant has no rational and factual understanding of the proceedings that are occurring against him.

This is particularly important in criminal proceedings as one of the most basic tenets in our jurisprudence is that the accused must be competent to stand trial. The Defendant’s competence is therefore always an issue that can be raised at any point during the proceedings. When the Defendant’s competence is at issue, the court requires that they be examined by an expert to properly ascertain the person’s mental prowess.

Just like the affirmative defense of Insanity, the person cannot be put in jail while they are incompetent. Unlike this defense though, the person is held in a mental institution until they are deemed competent. At which point they may either be re-evaluated every few months or in cases where the individual may be perceived to be unlikely to recover they may be put in a more permanent facility. Once the person is deemed to be competent, they State reserves the right to bring charges against them again for the previous infraction.

The big takeaway is that those who are deemed unfit to stand trial may have to still face charges and incarceration after they are committed, unlike those who plea the defense of insanity at the time of their unlawful action.

Mental Health Expert Witnesses

Expert witnesses are often called into cases to help with the facts of the crime. A mental health expert witness can either be a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist. A forensic psychiatrist would be used to determine if a defendant is competent to stand trial, and a forensic psychologist would be used to determine if the defendant is deemed legally sane at the time of the crime.

To find out more about the differences between a forensic psychologist and a psychiatrist, as well as the ways a mental health expert can help with your case, find our blog here.

Top Insanity Cases

  • Steven Steinberg CaseSteven Steinberg was accused of murdering his wife in 1981, stabbing her twenty-six times. The case led to an insanity plea due to Steinberg’s claim that he had been sleepwalking during the incident. Steinberg had been the one to call the police, thinking that there had been a break-in in their home. Steinberg later did not deny killing his wife but used the argument that he was not responsible since he was sleepwalking and had no recollection of killing his wife. The jury found him not guilty based on being temporarily insane at the time of the crime.
  • Lorena Bobbitt CaseLorena Bobbitt was acquitted after going to court for cutting off her then husband’s penis. Bobbitt argued that she suffered years of abuse and was sexually assaulted by John Bobbitt, which resulted in her snapping and cutting off his genitals. The jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Bobbitt was ordered by a judge to go through a 45-day evaluation period in a mental hospital. After six years of marriage, John and Lorena finalized their divorce.”
  • John Hinkley Jr. Case – John Hinckley was known for his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. During the 1982 trial, experts tried to identify if he was considered sane or not during the attempted assassination. An objective evaluation of his mental condition argued that he was a troubled young man. Hinkley Jr. was given a not guilty verdict for the reason of insanity.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime and believe that the insanity plea can be used, it is important to seek out the legal advice of a skilled defense trial attorney in Florida. Navigating the legal world is extremely stressful and can be even more so if the person has a mental illness. Do not let this stop you from receiving top-quality legal help.

Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients all across the state of Florida for various cases. They understand the importance of strategizing a strong defense and are prepared to stand in your corner to fight for your freedom. Don’t hesitate to call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message to receive a free

Written by Karissa Key

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