Mental Illness & Criminal Liability

Written By: Kenneth Kohler

Today’s news stories are full of descriptions of mass shooters, many of which are described as having mental illness issues (PTSD, Paranoia, Schizophrenia, etc.). As a Minnesota defense attorney, I am constantly approached by people asking whether the suspect is “going to get away with it” because of a mental illness. The answer to this question is far from an easy one.

Minnesota Statutes 611.026 state:

No person having a mental illness or cognitive impairment so as to be incapable of understanding the proceedings or making a defense shall be tried, sentenced, or punished for any crime; but the person shall not be excused from criminal liability except upon proof that at the time of committing the alleged criminal act the person was laboring under such a defect of reason, from one of these causes, as not to know the nature of the act, or that it was wrong.

In Minnesota, a motion questioning the mental capabilities of the defendant is called a Rule 20 motion. This motion can be brought in two different instances. First is when the defendant’s competency to stand trial is in doubt. “Competency” is a tricky term with conflicting definitions. Psychology often provides specialists who, after an evaluation, provide opinions upon which the legal definition is applied. But psychology is a very inexact science that attempts to interpret and predict the reality of human nature. Rarely is there a black and white answer to this question.

The legal definition of Competency focuses on the defendant’s mental limitations at the present time and ignores the time when the crime is alleged. Competency is a fundamental and constitutional right of every person to understand the case against him and to be able to participate in their defense. A defendant who is found incompetent by a court cannot be tried. As an attorney, it is incumbent upon me to inquire of my client about their understanding of the basics of the criminal system, a judge and an attorney’s duty, a jury’s responsibility, the witnesses’ oath to tell the truth, the submission of evidence and the burdens of proof required in each case, to name just a few basics. Should a defendant be unable to grasp these concepts due to a mental illness, or a low I.Q., a judge may order a case to be delayed until a defendant can be rehabilitated, or the case can even dismissed if rehabilitation is impossible.

The second area where mental illness is used as a defense occurs where a defendant’s behavior is excused from criminal responsibility because of his mental illness. This legal examination, unlike competency, examines the defendant’s condition at the time the crime is committed. In Minnesota, this defense is known as the M’Naghten defense. The M’Naghten defense dates back to 1843 when British common law examined an incident where Daniel M’Naghten fired a pistol, killing the British Prime Minister. The M’Naghten Rule applied a set of inquiries applied to the defendant’s mental state at the time he committed the offense. Did the defendant labor under such a defect of reason (mental illness) that he did not understand the nature and quality of the act he was committing? Or, if he did understand, did his defect of reason cause him to NOT know that what he was doing was wrong? For example, a man returns to his home. He is suffering from a mental illness, which distorts his perception of reality. His wife approaches him, but rather than seeing his wife, he suffers a hallucination that makes him see an attacker approaching him with a weapon. He seizes a knife and assaults his perceived attacker (his wife). While the husband understood his actions, he was unable to perceive that his actions were wrong, and in fact, he believed his actions were necessary to defend himself. If this opinion can be supported by psychiatric experts after the defendant’s mental evaluation, he may be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Such a finding may not end the defendant’s involvement in the system. After such a finding, the judge may be entitled to order the defendant to undergo a civil commitment. If the defendant is found to be a danger to himself or to others, he may be committed to a mental facility where he would be ordered to remain and be treated until he is found to no longer be a threat. Such a commitment is for an indeterminate period of time, and may exceed the amount of detention that his original charge may have entailed.

Ken Kohler is a criminal defense attorney at Vogel Law Firm, and can be reached at (218) 236-6462 if you, a friend, or a loved one, has a case where mental illness is a factor. This article is only meant to provide general information and does not in any way constitute legal advice.

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