What is criminal responsibility?

This post will answer some frequently asked questions about criminal responsibility.

What is an insanity defense?

“Insanity” does not necessarily mean the defendant is “crazy” or “mad”. “Insanity defense” is a shorthand term that a defendant lacked criminal responsibility.

Under Commonwealth law, a person is not guilty if he or she lacked criminal responsibility when he or she committed a crime. This is sometimes referred to as “not guilty by reason of insanity”.

If a defendant wants to use the “insanity defense”, the first thing his or her lawyer will do is contact an expert. That expert will be a psychologist or psychiatrist. The expert will gather all of the client’s records such as police reports and medical records, and eventually interview the person charged.

Then the expert will draft a report, which will detail if the expert believes the person was criminally responsible or not. A copy of that detailed medical report will be provided to the district attorney. At this time, the district attorney may exercise his or her right to hire an expert of their own. These cases often thus become a “battle of experts”.

What is the presumption of sanity?

The “presumption of sanity” is a shorthand expression for the fact that the majority of people are sane.

Once the issue of insanity has been raised, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was sane at the time of the crime.

What does the government have to prove to show someone was criminally responsible for a crime?

The Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she:

  1. Committed the offense charged
  2. He or she was sane when he or she did so

What determines a lack of criminal responsibility?

A person is lacking in criminal responsibility if he or she has a mental disease or defect, and as a result of that mental disease or defect either:

  1. He or she is substantially unable to appreciate the criminality or wrongfulness of his or her conduct

2. He or she is substantially unable to conform to his or her conduct to the requirements of the law

The defendant’s mental condition must have been such that he or she was unable to realize his or her behavior was wrong or was unable to make himself or herself behave as the law requires.

If there is reasonable doubt whether the defendant committed every one of the required elements to this crime, the defendant must be found not guilty.

Is it my responsibility to show that I'm not criminally responsible for a crime?

It is NOT up to the defendant to prove that he or she lacked criminal responsibility at the time of the crime. Rather, the burden is on the Commonwealth to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, and that the defendant was sane at the time he or she committed the crime.

What types of evidence can the court use to show I am not criminally responsible?

A defense of lack of criminal responsibility may be raised by any evidence which, if believed, might create a reasonable doubt concerning the defendant’s criminal responsibility at the time of the crime.

Expert testimony is not always required to raise such a doubt. The defendant can also rely on the facts of the case.

What happens when the court finds me not guilty by reason of insanity?

When the defense of insanity is fairly raised, the defendant is entitled to an instruction regarding the consequences of a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

If a defendant is found not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility:

First, a judge may order such a person to be hospitalized for an initial 40-day observation period at a facility for the mentally ill or at Bridgewater State Hospital.

During this period, the district attorney or certain mental health personnel may petition the court to commit the person for 6 months.

Then, if it is shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the person continues to be mentally ill and that his or her discharge would create a likelihood of serious harm to himself or herself or others, a judge may grant the petition and order the person committed for 6 months.

After that, a judge will review the person’s mental condition at least once a year, and there may be additional periods of commitment if he or she continues to be mentally ill and dangerous.

If the person is no longer mentally ill and dangerous, he or she will be discharged. The district attorney will be notified prior to any hearing about the person’s release, but the final decision to either recommit or to release the person, is always made by a judge.

What is the legal definition of a mental illness?

According to the Department of Mental Health, a mental illness is:

“a substantial disorder of thought, mood, perception, orientation, or memory which grossly impairs judgment, behavior, capacity to recognize reality or ability to meet the ordinary demands of life.”

Is intoxication a mental disease?

Intoxication by alcohol or drugs is not by itself a “mental disease or defect”. However in some cases, a person’s consumption of alcohol or drugs may activate a latent mental disease or defect, apart from the intoxication itself.

Unless the defendant knew or had reason to know that the alcohol or drugs would activate that illness, such a latent mental disease or defect could be used as a basis for finding a lack of criminal responsibility.



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