What is the Insanity Defense?

It’s pretty fundamental to criminal law that if someone is insane, then they’re not totally responsible for their actions. But what is “insanity?” Essentially, if you have a form of mental illness that substantially affects your actions and capacity to commit a crime, then you can be excused of committing that crime. While they’re punished, they are subject to confinement in a mental institution rather than just letting them off of the hook entirely. In recent years, the insanity defense has been met with a lot of controversies. After John Hinckley was acquitted for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, outraged organizations and vocal citizens made it be known that they were totally against that kind of result. More recently, Kansas decided to get rid of it entirely as a complete defense.insanity defense

How Does Ohio Handle Insanity?

Ohio uses what is known in legal jargon as the M'Naghten Rule. Under ORC § 2901.01(A)(14), you are not guilty by reason of insanity if you can prove that you didn’t know, “as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, the wrongfulness of [your] actions.” (Let’s call “not guilty by reason of insanity “NGRI.”) You have to plead NGRI at arraignment, where the judge formally reads your charge in the courtroom. Obviously, a “severe mental disease or defect” brings up a lot of evidentiary issues. What counts as a “mental disease or defect?” And when is it considered “severe” enough?

First, you still have to prove through evidence and persuade the jury that there is a 50.1% chance that you’re insane. After you plead NGRI, the court will usually order your examination by a doctor and make that report available to the defense, court and prosecution. And usually, you’ll have a doctor or some expert testify as to the state of your mental condition. So, whether someone has a “mental disease or defect” that is “severe” is really just a question of evidence. If you can convince the jury that you had a severe mental disease that made it so you couldn’t tell that what you were doing was wrong, then you might have an insanity defense.

Example of the Insanity Defense 

Let’s check out an example from Columbus. In State v. Jennings, a man was convicted of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, and felonious assault. The case is, frankly, bizarre. The defendant—a friend of the victim—broke into the victim’s residence that he shared with four others, while the defendant was dressed head to toe in ninja gear. He then proceeded to stab the victim to death with two katanas and slash at a roommate who attempted to restrain the defendant. After his arrest, the defendant successfully showed that he was incompetent to stand trial, but he later was convicted after he regained competency because the jury didn’t find that he was NGRI.

The expert testimony was bizarre as well. The defendant’s expert testified that the defendant believed he was undergoing a “crusade” to stop the victim from mass murder, but the key information was that the defendant admitted that he knew that killing was wrong. Instead, he argued that he did it for a perfectly valid reason, even though it sounds crazy to the rest of us. So, the defendant knew that he did something illegal but he believed it to be morally right, in a perverse and vigilante way. Focusing on the defendant’s escape and attempt to conceal his actions, the Court of Appeals found that the defendant knew what he was doing was wrong. Therefore, it found that he couldn’t be NGRI because even though he had a severe mental illness and delusions, it didn’t affect the fact that he knew killing was wrong.

Diminished Capacity vs. Insanity 

So, what happens if you successfully are found NGRI? Well, under ORC § 2945.40(A), the court has a hearing to see if the defendant is either mentally ill enough for hospitalization or institutionalization. The state has a lower burden of proving that the person needs hospitalization or institutionalization, which is clear and convincing evidence—about a 75% chance of being true. If the state fails, the court must discharge the person. The person will still serve their sentence in a term of years, but they are sent to the hospital or institution for that period of time instead of prison or jail.

There are instances where a defendant’s mental condition doesn’t exactly rise to the level of “insanity,” but still lessens the state’s punishment against him. This is known as “diminished capacity.” How this works is that it reduces the level of intent that the defendant had, so it lessens the caliber of offense that the state can charge you with. If you’re charged with murder but you show that you had diminished capacity and it meant that you weren’t purposely trying to kill someone, then this defense can force the state to only charge you with a lesser form of homicide, like manslaughter or negligent homicide. Sounds good, right?

Wrong. Why? Because Ohio doesn’t recognize diminished capacity as a defense. Instead, under Ohio law, you have to plead NGRI if you want to introduce evidence that your mental capacity was diminished in some way. If you don’t, then you cannot try and claim that some mental illness affected your ability to commit the crime or have a certain level of intent. Still, this evidence is admissible and useful in capital cases because it can help lessen the punishment.

Are You or Someone You Know Facing Criminal Charges? 

If you are facing criminal charges, you need to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The Law Offices of Steven R. Adams is recognized by Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, The Best Lawyers in America, National Trial Lawyers Top 100, and is one of U.S. News' Best Law Firms.  Please contact us online or call our Cincinnati office directly at 513-929-9333 to schedule your free consultation. 

Alex Deardorff
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Criminal defense attorney Alex Deardorff is dedicated to serving her clients throughout the Cincinnati area