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Insanity Defense: Mental Health and the Legal System

Posted on in Criminal Defense

 mental health and legal system, Wisconsin defense attorneyModern media like movies and television often like to use the intersection of mental health and the law as a plot device, playing on legal theories like the insanity defense. However, this trend often leads to misconceptions about how mental health and the criminal justice system interact.

Fundamentally, a defendant's mental health can become important at two separate points during the case. First, it may affect whether the defendant can actually be tried, as in the recent case of the young girl accused of attempting to murder her friend in order to appease a fictional horror movie villain. Second, a defendant's mental health may be raised as a defense to a crime.

Fitness to Stand Trial

The preliminary point in the case where the defendant's mental health can be an issue is before the trial even starts. Chapter 971.13 of the Wisconsin Statutes requires that a defendant be mentally competent to stand trial. This means that the defendant must be able to understand the trial and what is happening to him or her, and he or she must be mentally capable of assisting his or her defense team in the way that a defendant normally would. So long as a defendant is unable to do those things he or she cannot be tried. However, the defendant is periodically reevaluated to determine his or her condition, and also receives treatment in order to try to make him or her mentally competent. Additionally, according to the statute, if a person is competent to stand trial only because they are being medicated, they still qualifies to be tried under the law.

Insanity Defenses

The other way that a defendant's mental health can have an impact on a criminal trial is through the insanity defense. The insanity defense is technically referred to as a plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease. The theory behind the defense is that the defendant cannot be held responsible for his or her actions because of his or her mental state at the time of the crime. The difficulty with this defense is that there are a variety of mental diseases or defects that do not rise to the level of being an excuse under the law. The standard that the law imposes on the defense is that the defendant, because of his or her mental disease or defect, must either be unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her actions or he or she must be unable to conform his or her conduct to the law. For instance, a person who was hallucinating such that he thought he was chopping down a tree when in reality he was attacking another person would be unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.

The insanity defense is a relatively rare plea, but one that can be important for justice to be done properly. If you have recently been charged with a crime and want to learn more about possible defenses to it, contact an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney today.
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