State Supreme Court Limits Use of “Insanity Defense”

Starry NightIn a criminal prosecution, the state has the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendants may be able to raise certain defenses under either statutes or the common law. An affirmative defense that receives a great deal of attention in pop culture but is not often well understood is the “insanity defense.” The legal standard for this defense varies greatly from state to state. A recent state supreme court ruling limited the availability of the insanity defense when a defendant does not voluntarily agree to its assertion at trial. New Jersey v. Gorthy, 145 A.3d 146 (N.J. 2016).

A defendant who raises the insanity defense is effectively admitting to the actions that constitute the alleged offense but arguing that they should not be held criminally responsible. Under Texas law, the insanity defense requires a defendant to provide evidence of a “mental disease or defect” that rendered them incapable of “know[ing] that [their] conduct was wrong. Tex. Pen. Code § 8.01. This focus on a defendant’s understanding of “right” and “wrong” is often known as the M’Naghten Rule, after an 1843 English court decision. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has summarized this rule as requiring proof of an “extreme delusional state[] that caused [the defendant] to misperceive the very nature of their acts,” or a “belie[f] that in acting, they were obeying rather than violating the laws of society.” Rubio v. State, 241 S.W.3d 1, 13 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007).

One criticism of the M’Naghten Rule, as applied in Texas, is that it fails to provide clarity “about whether ‘wrong’ should be considered from a legal or a moral standpoint.” Id. at 14. The consensus appears to be that the rule looks at “wrong” from a legal standpoint. The Rubio decision mentions the case of Andrea Yates, a woman who killed her children out of a belief that it was necessary to “drive out the devil.” Id. Under Texas law, she was found not to be insane because she understood her actions to be illegal, if not immoral. Id., see also People v Schmidt, 216 N.Y. 324 (1915).

The insanity defense, it should be noted, is different from the question of competency to stand trial. A defendant must be able to rationally understand the charges against them for a criminal case to proceed. Tex. Code Crim. P. Art. 46B.003. Any party, or the court itself, may challenge a defendant’s competence to stand trial. Id. at Art. 46B.004. A defendant asserting the insanity defense must provide notice to the court on a strict deadline and follow various other procedures. Id. at Art. 46C.051.

The Gorthy case involved the use of the insanity defense without the consent of a defendant who had been found competent to stand trial. The trial court found that the defendant “could not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive the insanity defense,” so it asserted it for her. Gorthy, 145 A.3d at 148. The state supreme court reversed this ruling and remanded the case, finding that “[h]owever unwise defendant’s strategy may have been,” id. at 149, it was her decision to make as a competent defendant.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

For more than two decades, board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for people’s rights against alleged state and federal criminal charges in the courts of West Texas. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case with an experienced legal professional, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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Photo credit: Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.