What is the “Insanity” Defense?

You’ve probably heard of – or even seen on television – examples of the insanity defense. Generally, when someone wants to use an insanity defense, they’re saying that they can’t be held responsible for committing a crime because they weren’t thinking clearly at the time they committed it. 

The insanity defense is real, but it’s not necessarily the same as what you see on your favorite crime shows. Although you hear the word insane tossed around every day, Illinois law has a much stricter definition of it than most people do. The basis of this defense is simple: The person who committed the crime is suffering from a mental illness that prevents them from understanding the criminality of their conduct. 

Though that may seem easy to prove, it’s not. In fact, an attorney who is using this defense must show the court that the person accused of the crime is so detached from reality that they don’t understand that what they did was against the law. To dive a little deeper, look at the following two examples:

  • Defendant A has a substantially low IQ and has a severe intellectual disability. She walks through a store filling her pockets with items and leaves. Defendant A doesn’t understand the concept of stealing, so she doesn’t know that it’s a crime. The insanity defense would likely work for Defendant A.
  • Defendant Z kills his wife in a fit of jealousy when he discovers she’s been cheating on him. He wasn’t thinking clearly at the time, and he wouldn’t ordinarily even consider doing something like that. Defendant Z has no history of mental illness aside from a brief episode of depression a few years prior to the incident, and doctors can find no evidence that he suffers from a mental illness that would prevent him from understanding that killing his wife was a crime – even in the heat of the moment when it happened. The insanity defense is very unlikely to work for Defendant Z.

These two examples are extreme, but there are many cases in which the insanity defense is an option. However, your lawyer is unlikely to use it unless you can prove that you suffer from a mental illness that could have rendered you incapable of understanding that you committed a crime. 

Related: The real truth about entrapment

Will You Be Punished if You’re Found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity? 

If you’re found not guilty by reason of insanity, the court will have to determine whether you will ever be fit to stand trial for the crime. Either way, you’ll most likely be sentenced to treatment in a mental health facility. Remember, not guilty by reason of insanity doesn’t actually mean that you’re not guilty of the crime; it means you’re guilty of the crime, but you can’t be held criminally liable.

Related: When should you claim self-defense?

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