Temporary insanity as a defense to criminal liability

Legal background and history

Murder is a serious crime. If found guilty, the accused faces, at the very least, a long prison term. When a person pleads "not guilty" to the crime of murder, he or she could be saying a number of things. The person may, first of all, be saying, "I'm innocent. I didn't commit this crime." Or the person may be saying, "I killed the victim, but I'm not guilty of a criminal offense because I was insane at the time the act took place."

What, exactly, is "insanity"? The definition varies among states. Most states, including Pennsylvania, use the M'Naghten rule, which requires a jury to find that the defendant was incapable, when the offense was committed, of distinguishing right from wrong.

A plea of temporary insanity is a refinement of this rule and means that the defendant was insane when the crime was committed, but is, at the time of the trial, sane. If the jury accepts the defense, the defendant is found "not guilty," but is not committed for mental or psychiatric treatment (because his or her insanity was deemed temporary), and is free to go.

History and present state of the law

The M'Naghten defense was first successfully used in 1859 in a case involving a man, in a rage, killing the lover of his wife. The defense is still available today in most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, although a number of states, reflecting popular opinion against those accused of crimes, have passed legislation against it.

One essential element of a successful M'Naghten defense is that the defendant needs a diagnosis of a serious mental disorder, such as schizophrenia. If such a defendant is on medication that treats the condition, is vigilantly maintaining a treatment course, is unlikely to engage in the behavior again, and now appears sane, the jury may well find him or her not guilty because of temporary insanity.

Pennsylvania does not have a lot of statutory or case law on the subject. A 1980 case states that, in a criminal prosecution, notice to the state under Pennsylvania Criminal Rule 305 which alleges temporary insanity must include a diagnosis or information concerning the extent or nature of the mental disorder that the defendant is suffering from.

But what is a "mental disorder"? There is no criminal statute defining the same, but perhaps statutory law in the area of insurance coverage for mental illness might prove helpful. The Pennsylvania statutes defines "serious mental illness" as a mental illnesses defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, namely, anorexia nervosa, bipolar disorder, bulimia nervosa, delusional disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia.

Conclusion

If you a charged with murder or another serious crime, and believe that you are not responsible for your actions due to a serious mental illness, an illness that does not presently effect you to the extent that you might be judged permanently insane, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to investigate the facts of your case, to determine whether you can plea temporary insanity, thus avoiding criminal responsibility as well as psychiatric commitment.