The Insanity Defense

The Insanity Defense in criminal law has always been a controversial topic to defendants, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and the public. Attorney William F. Sullivan at Sullivan and Sweeney has recently been involved in two high profile murder cases where the “insanity defense” was utilized, He has a unique perspective as to the how this defense is used and its problems and the possible improvements that can be made.

In Commonwealth v. Fujita and Commonwealth v. Lucas Walters, issues of serious mental health issues were raised before the cases even went before a jury in these Massachusetts murder cases.

Juries have traditionally been reluctant to acquit a defendant on the basis of an Insanity Defense and the Fujita and Walters cases showed the inherent difficulties in presenting this type of defense even where, there is strong valid evidence of mental illness. Underthe law, a defendant is (supposed) to be acquitted if the prosecution cannot prove that the defendant was not criminally responsible at the time of the crime. A defendant is not criminally responsible if because of a major mental illness the defendant did not appreciate what he was doing was wrong or that because of the mental illness he could not control his actions. This is fine in theory but in reality juries have traditionally had difficulty following this instruction.

Why and what is needed for a successful Insanity Defense?

In order to be successful in presenting an Insanity Defense, there are almost always certain factors that must be presented to a jury or judge;

1. There should be some pre existing history of mental illness. This can be found either in previous treatment or diagnosis or by documented previous actions consistent with the illness. This can be dealt with if not present, but counsel should look long and hard for any such prior evidence.

2. An effective and qualified expert who can effectively explain the mental illness and how the illness affected the defendant is vital. The expert must be able to apply his/her medical opinions to the above stated legal standard. This expert also must be able to withstand the cross examination of the prosecutor and the cynicism of the jury. The expert must be part teacher and part doctor.

3. A strong cross examination of the prosecution’s expert is an absolute necessity. The defense expert can help prepare counsel for cross examining the prosecution’s witness. In addition, counsel must be up to date with his/her knowledge of the applicable research regarding the medical literature and research upon which the witness bases their opinion.

It is also helpful to seek counsel comfortable worth this type of case. There are always complicated discovery issues relating to prior medical records, court ordered psychiatric exams and other issues unique to this type of case. Many experienced defense attorneys have never handled an Insanity Defense and may be reluctant or intimidated by the unique character of these type cases. If you need an experienced attorney in these matters contact Attorney William F. Sullivan at Sullivan and Sweeney (617) 300-0212 to discuss the insanity defense.

In later blogs, I will discuss the various suggestions being put forward in legal circles to make this long standing and long accepted defense more fairly applied such as in the Fujita and Walters cases mentioned above.