Legal Blog

What It Means to Plead Insanity to Criminal Charges

21 July 2017 | Criminal Defense,  Legal Blog,  

Attorney Sean Hessler

Written by
Sean Hessler

21 July 2017

Criminal Defense,  Legal Blog,  

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Before 1981, juries in criminal trials were tasked with determining whether a defendant was guilty, not guilty, or not responsible for reason of insanity. But in 1981, the Indiana legislature passed a new law that created a fourth option: guilty but mentally ill. Since then, jury verdicts of not responsible for reason of insanity have been rare.

The traditional insanity defense still exists in Indiana. As such, it is possible to argue that, at the time of the crime’s commission, the defendant lacked the mental capacity to understand their actions and to form a criminal state of mind. In such cases, the appropriate result is an acquittal. But usually, whenever the defendant’s mental illness is at issue in the case, juries choose to enter a guilty but mentally ill verdict.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime and you believe mental illness is involved, contact our experienced Indianapolis criminal defense lawyers at Hessler Law. We will evaluate your situation and help you obtain the best result possible under the circumstances. Call us today at (317) 886-8800.

What Does it Mean to Be Guilty But Mentally Ill?

The Indiana statute addressing the guilty but mentally ill defense is found at section 35-36-2-5 of the Indiana Code. The law’s goal is to provide treatment as opposed to punishment for offenders with mental illness – but the treatment takes the form of confinement within a psychiatric facility. In other words, the defense doesn’t affect your guilt, but only the form of your punishment.

Under the statute, there are two ways to access the defense:

  • Pleading at your arraignment that you are guilty but mentally ill
  • Should the court decline to accept your plea, your lawyer can prove to the jury at trial that you are mentally ill

In either case, guilty but mentally ill is essentially the same as being guilty of the crime. The only difference is that you also need to prove that you were suffering from mental illness, which Indiana law defines as a “psychiatric disorder that substantially disturbs a person’s thinking, feeling, or behavior and impairs that person’s ability to function.” Your mental illness must be established by a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or a community mental health center. This evaluation must take place before your sentencing, unless your evaluation was introduced as evidence in the trial or in the plea agreement hearing.

In contrast, the insanity defense involves claiming that you are innocent because you didn’t have the mental capacity to form criminal intent at the time you committed the crime. In practice, lawyers generally argue the insanity defense, as it might result in the optimal outcome of an acquittal, and then a jury will return a verdict of guilty but not mentally ill.

What Sentence Can Result from a Guilty But Mentally Ill Verdict?

If you successfully plead – or a jury returns a verdict of – guilty but mentally ill, the court will commit you to the Indiana department of corrections, which will further evaluate you and determine what treatment you need. Depending on the results of this evaluation, you may be detained at a psychiatric facility operated by the department of corrections or the division of mental health and addictions.

There will be no possibility of re-entering society until the department of corrections concludes that you have been cured of your mental illness, and you serve the balance of the sentence in prison or jail. Thus, seeking a guilty but mentally ill verdict is not a strong defense strategy because it doesn’t affect the length of your sentence. Your criminal defense lawyer may be able to defend your case by arguing insanity, but juries usually chose to enter a verdict of guilty but mentally ill instead.

In general, the most effective way to defend a criminal case is to file a motion to remove the prosecutor’s evidence from the case, which may be possible when law enforcement collected it in violation of your rights. Deprived of evidence, the prosecutor cannot prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If you have been charged with a crime and re wondering what defense strategies may be available to you, call Hessler Law PC today at (317) 886-8800 for a consultation.