When individuals in Texas who are charged with a crime mount a defense based on mental illness or incapacity, they admit to the underlying act but claim that they did not know their conduct was wrong. This defense is used very rarely as it shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense. In other criminal trials, the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. When the insanity defense is mounted, the defendant admits guilt and must prove that they suffer from a condition that leaves them unable to tell right from wrong.
When juries return a verdict of not guilty by reason of mental defect or incapacity, the defendants are not released from custody. Instead, they are committed to a mental health facility until doctors are convinced that they no longer pose a threat to the community. This means that an individual deemed insane by a jury could be confined for longer than an individual found guilty. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such confinement did not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments because it was based on a medical condition and not a criminal act.
The insanity defense in Texas
A famous Texas case where the insanity defense was used involved a woman who admitted to deliberately drowning her five children in 2001. Her criminal defense attorney argued that she should be found not guilty because she suffered from schizophrenia, postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression. The jury members were unconvinced and found the woman guilty. She was given another chance when her conviction was overturned because of issues with medical evidence presented during her trial. The second jury to hear the case found her not guilty by reason of insanity.
Choosing a defense strategy
An experienced criminal defense attorney might be reluctant to use the insanity defense without overwhelming medical evidence. This is especially true if establishing guilt could be difficult for the prosecutor. Before considering an insanity defense, an attorney may study the defendant’s medical records and ask for the opinions of psychiatrists and other mental health experts.