Dedicated Texas Criminal Defender

Can a mental illness affect a defense strategy?

On Behalf of | May 15, 2024 | Criminal defense

When a defendant suffers from a mental illness, this reality can significantly influence their defense strategy. Mental illness can affect a defendant’s ability to stand trial, contribute to their actions at the time of the alleged offense and potentially impact sentencing in the event of a conviction. 

Of particular importance is whether an individual’s mental illness may have influenced their conduct at the time of their alleged criminal activity. This concern can impact the prosecution’s ability to prove intent for certain offenses. A defendant’s overall mental health can also impact the approach that their legal team takes when crafting their defense

Strategic considerations

One of the first considerations when a defendant is known to suffer from mental illness is their competency to stand trial. Competency refers to the defendant’s ability to understand the proceedings and participate in their defense. If there are doubts about competency, the defense can request a psychological evaluation. If the defendant is found incompetent, they may be sent to a mental health facility until they are deemed competent to proceed, which can delay their trial significantly.

In some cases, those with mental illness may raise an insanity defense. This defense argues that the defendant was suffering from a severe mental health condition at the time of the crime that impaired their ability to distinguish right from wrong or to control their actions. If successful, the defendant may be committed to a psychiatric institution instead of a prison.

Even if mental illness is not part of the initial defense, it can be consequential during the sentencing phase of a criminal matter. Defense attorneys might argue that a defendant’s mental health issues should mitigate their responsibility and lead to a lesser sentence. This might involve requesting alternative sentencing options such as treatment programs instead of incarceration, or advocating for placement in a facility equipped to handle their mental health needs.

Defense strategies might also emphasize the potential for rehabilitation. Presenting a treatment plan or demonstrating past efforts at managing mental health can help in negotiating plea bargains or during sentencing hearings. The goal is to show the court that the defendant is committed to improving their mental health and reducing the risk of reoffending.

There is no straightforward way to answer the question of “Can a mental illness affect a defendant’s criminal defense strategy?” except to say that it depends on the situation. This is one of the many reasons why those accused of criminal wrongdoing should seek informed, personalized guidance as proactively as possible.