The Challenges of Pleading “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”

July 26, 2023 Criminal Defense, Violent Crimes

insanity defense

Photo from the Green Bay Press Gazzette










On February 23, 2022, a mother from Green Bay, Wisconsin made a horrific discovery when she found her son’s severed head sitting in a bucket in her basement. Taylor Schabusiness was later accused of murdering the young man, sexually assaulting his corpse, and then dismembering his body. After her arrest, Schabusiness pleaded “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

The trial for what has now been dubbed as the “House of Horrors Murder” began on July 24, 2023. During opening statements, Schabusiness’ defense attorney asked the jury to refrain from “jumping to conclusions” and to “keep an open mind” throughout the trial. Surprisingly, the defense did not mention their intent to pursue an insanity defense. This is because the trial has been divided into two phases. First, the jury will assess whether Schabusiness is guilty of the charges brought against her. Second, if the jury finds her guilty on any of the charges, they will then consider whether she can be declared insane.

This article will discuss the details behind the House of Horrors Murder case, explore the challenges of an insanity defense, and examine Florida’s current legal standard for an affirmative defense of insanity.

The House of Horrors Murder

During the early hours of February 23, 2022, officers with the Green Bay Police Department were dispatched to a residence where a mother claimed to have discovered her son’s severed head in a bucket. Upon reaching the scene, the officers observed a plastic bucket in the basement covered with a towel. When they lifted the towel, they confirmed the unsettling finding of a severed human head, a “male organ,” body fluids, and three knives inside the bucket. Other body parts were discovered scattered throughout the basement in bags and storage totes.

Based on the mother’s account provided to 911, law enforcement concluded that the remains belonged to her 24-year-old son, Shad Thyrion. The mother also informed authorities that her son had spent the preceding day in the company of Taylor Schabusiness, who was both his friend and sexual partner. 

Upon discovering that Schabusiness was the last known person to have seen the victim alive, the authorities promptly located and apprehended her. She was found with dried blood on her sweatshirt, pants, and hands. Law enforcement also managed to locate Schabusness’ vehicle, wherein they discovered a crock pot box containing human body parts.

After her apprehension, Schabusiness informed the authorities that both she and the victim had  smoked methamphetamines before engaging in consensual sex that involved the use of chains. According to Schabusiness, her and the victim had a history of engaging in erotic asphyxiation during sex. In the midst of their sexual encounter, Schabusiness placed a chain around the victim’s neck and began pulling. As she choked the victim, Schabusiness could feel his heart beating and decided to pull on the chains even harder instead of loosening them. She noticed that the victim’s face was turning purple and had blood coming out of his mouth but continued to apply pressure.

The victim tragically succumbed to the choking. Notably, Schabusiness asserted that she did not intend to kill the young man but admitted to deriving pleasure from choking him. After his death, Schabusiness further admitted to performing sexual acts on his body, which included performing oral sex and using sex toys.

Schabusiness further informed law enforcement that she chose to use a bread knife to dismember the victim’s body due to its serrated blade. When asked about the location of the remaining body parts, Schabusiness responded, “that is a good question,” and clarified that she had blacked out during part of the dismemberment process. She also told investigators to “have fun trying to find all of the organs.”

Schabusiness’ alleged actions have undoubtedly caused significant trauma to the individuals connected to this case, including the victim’s family and the first responders who entered the house. But there has been considerable speculation about whether Schabusiness lacked culpability based on an existing mental illness at the time of the murder.

What evidence supports an insanity defense in the House of Horrors Murder trial?

Earlier this year, on February 14, 2023, Schabusiness attacked her defense attorney in open court after he mentioned a delay to the scheduled jury trial date. She was immediately restrained by law enforcement and removed from the courtroom. As she was escorted out of the courtroom, a deputy was overheard telling Schabusiness: “You went off on your attorney, Taylor. You went crazy on your attorney.” This attack raised eyebrows in the legal community and increased speculation about the possibility of an insanity defense.

On July 13, 2023, a board-certified forensic psychologist testified in the Wisconsin court about whether Schabusiness was “competent” to stand trial. A criminal defendant is competent to stand trial when they have “sufficient present ability to consult with [their] lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding” and “has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against [them].” This standard is different from whether a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity. Competency is determined based on the defendant’s state of mind at the time the trial takes place, while insanity is determined based on the defendant’s state of mind at the time the criminal offense takes place.

Notwithstanding the differences between competency and insanity, the expert conclusions from the board-certified forensic psychologist may provide an insight into Schabusiness’ mental condition at the time of the murder.

During the hearing, psychologist Diane Lytton testified that, in her professional opinion, Schabusiness experiences “command hallucinations” that lead her to “hurt herself or other people.” Command hallucinations are a type of hallucination experienced by individuals with certain mental health conditions, particularly those with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. In these hallucinations, a person may hear voices or sounds that command or instruct them to perform specific actions, often with harmful or aggressive directives towards themselves or others.

Schabusiness also shared some concerning thoughts with Lytton during her competency evaluation. For example, Schabusiness expressed that she had a relationship with Jeffrey Dahmer, who had died twenty-nine years earlier. Notably, Jeffrey Dahmer was a Wisconsin serial killer and sex offender who gained notoriety for the brutal murders, dismemberment, and consumption (cannibalism) of at least 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991.

It is important to note that Wisconsin operates under a different legal standard than Florida for determining whether an individual was insane when committing a crime. Because this case is located in Wisconsin, Schabusiness will need to demonstrate that, at the time of the offense (when the criminal act occurred), she had a severe mental disease or defect and, as a result, lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or conform her behavior to the requirements of the law.

If Schabusiness experienced command hallucinations at the time of the murder, the Defense might argue that her actions were influenced by the hallucinations, and that she lacked the substantial capacity to control her behavior. Not to mention, the fact that Schabusiness believed she had a relationship with a notorious deceased serial killer could indicate a disordered thought process and possible delusions, which might be relevant to her mental state at the time of the offense.  

If Schabusiness’ defense team presents experts who can demonstrate a clear connection between her mental disease or defect and the actions committed during the murder, it could support the claim of insanity. But it is important to remember that the insanity defense is a complex and challenging defense to prove, and the burden of proof generally falls on the defendant. The jury will need to carefully consider all the evidence presented, including expert testimony, medical records, and other relevant information, to determine whether Schabusiness meets the criteria for insanity under the Wisconsin standard. In the end, the final decision will rest in the hands of the jury.

Why is an Insanity Defense difficult to prove?

The challenges of presenting an insanity defense are largely attributed to John Hinckley, Jr. In 1981, Hinckley attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan in an effort to impress actress Jodie Foster, who he was obsessed with. During trial, Hinckley’s defense team argued that he was not guilty by reason of insanity because he was suffering from a severe mental illness, particularly an erotomaniac delusion, which led him to believe that by carrying out the assassination attempt he could win the affection of Foster.

When the Hinckley jury returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, the public cried out and raised concerns about the use and effectiveness of the insanity defense in the legal system. Many people believed that Hinkley was not being held responsible for his actions and that the insanity defense allowed dangerous criminals to escape punishment.

In response to the public outcry, Congress passed the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 with the main objective of increasing the difficulty for defendants seeking a not guilty verdict by reason of insanity. The revised federal standard transformed insanity into an affirmative defense, placing the burden on the defendant to prove their insanity by clear and convincing evidence.

Following the federal government’s modification to the standard for federal insanity defenses, numerous states adopted similar changes. For example, in 2000, the Florida legislature amended its insanity defense standard to align with the federal standard’s more restrictive criteria. Florida criminal defendants are now presumed to be sane, and they bear the responsibility of establishing the defense of insanity by clear and convincing evidence.

In light of this restrictive standard, here are some factors contributing to the challenges of proving the insanity defense:

  • High burden of proof: When using an insanity defense, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant, requiring them to prove their insanity by a high standard of evidence. In Florida, a defendant must prove their insanity by “clear and convincing evidence.” But proving insanity to this standard can be extremely challenging due to the subjectivity of mental states and the complexity of psychiatric diagnoses.
  • Subjectivity of mental states: In cases involving an insanity defense, the primary focus is on the defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense, which often leads to a “battle of the experts.” Usually, the defense calls upon experts to testify about the defendant’s mental condition, while the State presents its own experts to challenge or counter the testimony of the defense experts. Diagnosing mental illnesses is not as clear-cut as diagnosing physical ailments, and as a result, experts may hold varying opinions on the defendant’s mental state during the time of the offense. This disparity in expert opinions adds to the complexity of insanity defense cases.
  • Stigma surrounding mental illness: There is undoubtedly a societal stigma associated with mental illness, which can impact how a jury will perceive an insanity defense. For example, jurors may have preconceived notions about mental illness, making it difficult for them to objectively view the defendant’s actions from a clinical perspective.
  • Focus on legal standards: The insanity defense is a legal concept rather than a clinical one, meaning that merely having a mental disorder is not enough to establish insanity in a legal context. In the medical field, mental status is evaluated on a continuum, ranging from extremely ill to completely healthy. But in the legal context, the language is categorically focused on whether an individual is criminally responsible or not responsible.
  • Time of assessment: Typically, a defendant’s mental state at the time of the offense may not be evaluated by an expert until long after the event took place. Memories may fade, and the defendant’s mental state at the time of the evaluation may differ from their state during the offense. The time at which a defendant’s mental condition is assessed by an expert may impact the accuracy and reliability of an expert’s conclusions at trial.

These challenges are not all-encompassing, and additional factors may come into play depending on the specifics of the case, further contributing to a challenging uphill battle for the defense to meet their burden of proof.  Despite the difficulties and obstacles, the insanity defense continues to be an important safeguard, ensuring that individuals with severe mental illnesses are not entirely held accountable for actions they did not have the ability to comprehend or control adequately due to their mental condition.

What is Florida’s current legal standard for an insanity defense?

The standard for the insanity defense in Florida was established and codified in Section 775.027, Florida Statutes. As an affirmative defense, it asserts that at the time of committing the acts constituting the offense, the defendant was legally considered insane.

According to this standard, insanity is deemed to have occurred if two specific criteria are met:  (a) The defendant has a mental infirmity, disease, or defect; AND

            (b)        Because of this condition, the defendant:

                        (1)        Did not know what he or she was doing or its consequences; OR

(2)        Although the defendant knew what he or she was doing and its consequences, the defendant did not know that what he or she was doing was wrong.

This standard for the insanity defense requires the defense to present substantial evidence and expert testimony to demonstrate the existence of a mental infirmity or defect, in addition to its impact on the defendant’s cognitive abilities and awareness during the offense.

What happens if a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity?

One of the leading misconceptions about a defendant who is found not guilty by reason of insanity is that they are released from prosecution without punishment. If a defendant is acquitted of criminal charges based on a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity and is deemed to have a mental illness that poses a manifest danger to themselves or others, they can be subject to involuntary commitment to a mental health facility for an indefinite period of time.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one are facing criminal accusations and considering the possibility of an insanity plea, it is crucial to seek the counsel of an experienced defense trial attorney in Florida. Navigating the complexities of the legal system can be highly stressful, especially when dealing with mental illness.

The skilled team at the Pumphrey Law Firm possesses extensive experience representing clients throughout Florida in diverse cases. They fully comprehend the significance of developing a robust defense strategy and are ready to stand by your side, advocating for your freedom. Don’t hesitate to contact them at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message to receive a free consultation.

Written by Emma J. Hirschy

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