The alleged mass-killer, James Holmes, has indicated that he will proceed in his trial—where he is accused of entering a theater and shooting dozens of people—with a plea of Not Guilty by reason of insanity. In a previous post, I explored the history of this legal procedure and what would happen in a trial. Colorado’s definition of insanity stems from an 1843 case in England where the defendant, Daniel M’naghten attempted to kill the prime minister.
Interestingly, most states still use this definition of insanity. . . “a person who is so diseased or defective in mind at the time of the commission of the act as to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong with respect to that act is not accountable.” It’s known as the M’naghten Rule.
If the trier of fact (a judge or a jury) decides that a defendant is not guilty be reason of insanity, it acknowledges that the person, in fact, committed the crime but is not to be held accountable.
Does this mean the defendant will “get off on a technicality?” Much of the daily media lead people to believe the defendant would walk out of the courtroom, free and able to commit more heinous crimes.
I don’t practice law in Colorado, so I can’t analyze accurately their procedure in insanity defenses, but in Minnesota there is a definite procedure for this. I suspect most other states have similar rules. If a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the case moves into a second phase. The accused would be moved to Probate Court (or sometimes called mental health court). The same psychiatrists that testified for or against the defendant in the criminal trial may also testify again in the probate court. Now, the focus of their testimony wouldn’t be the mental status of the defendant, but rather, what should be done with the individual? What are the diagnosis and what kinds of treatments may be possible.
The probate court would proceed with a commitment process: where and what should be done with the obviously dangerous defendant?
In Minnesota, he would probably be committed to a secure mental institution for an indeterminate period of time. Unlike a prison term that always carries a maximum confinement aspect to it, a commitment to an institution has no potential end. Theoretically, the person could remain there for life.
Sounds like a good long-term result, huh?
For the majority of cases, it works well. But here’s a potential problem: within state budget limits, there are only so many beds at these facilities. Once they are full, if a new “mass murderer” is committed to the institution, the team of doctors and psychiatrists must make a decision on which patient is “well enough” to be released back into the community. What if a person like James Holmes, after some years of therapy, is determined to be “cured”? And he’s released early.
This doesn’t happen automatically and is subject to judicial review with opposing professionals. But what if. . . ?