What is an insanity defense is, and how do courts determine whether a defendant falls within the parameters of being legally insane?
A defendant charged with a crime, who is found to have been legally insane when he or she committed a crime may be found not guilty by reason of insanity. In some cases, the defendant may be found guilty but sentenced to a less severe punishment due to a mental impairment. In states such as Washington, that allow the insanity defense, defendants must prove to the court that they did not understand what they were doing; failed to know right from wrong; acted on an uncontrollable impulse or some variety of these factors.
Insanity defenses to a criminal charge were first recognized in 1581, in an English legal treatise, which stated that, if a ‘mad man’, or a lunatic at the time of his lunacy kills someone, they cannot be held accountable. English courts came up with the wild beast test in the 18th Century, in which defendants could not be convicted if they could not understand the crime, no better than a wild beast, a brute or an infant.
Current laws allowing for the insanity defense follow a similar logic, although terms such as “lunatic” or “wild beast” are no longer used. In the mid 19th Century, the M’Naughten Rule was introduced and codified in to the British law, and is now used in the majority of the U.S. states, including Washington.
The M’Naughten rule simply states that a defendant did not understand what he or she did, or failed to distinguish right from wrong because of a “disease of mind.” This can be established by a mental competency evaluation, or be argued at trial by the defendant, in hopes of convincing a jury that an insanity defense would apply.
Another test commonly used by many states is the Model Penal Code test for legal insanity, which states that due to a diagnosed mental defect, the defendant either failed to understand the criminality of his acts, or was unable to act within the confines of the law.
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