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What is the insanity defense?

Section 8.01 of the Texas Penal Code provides for the affirmative defense of insanity: It is an affirmative defense to prosecution that, at the time of the conduct changed, the actor, as a result of severe mental disease or defect, did not know that his conduct was wrong.

There are some crimes so horrific most people would believe that the perpetrator had to be insane to commit it – monsters like Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, etc. Fortunately, that is not the law. The courts have held that the issue of insanity is not strictly medical; it also invokes both legal and ethical considerations. See Graham v. State, 566 S.W.2d [27] 941, 948-949 (Tex. Crim. App. 1978) (en banc). In deciding the ultimate issue of sanity, only the jury can join the non-medical components that must be considered in deciding the ultimate issue. Otherwise the issue of sanity would be decided in the hospitals and not the courtrooms.

In Bigby v. State, 892 S.W.2d 864 (1994) the defendant shot a friend in the back of the head, then smothered his infant son. A parade of doctors claimed he was paranoid, with delusions of persecution, and believed his actions were justified. The jury didn’t buy it.

The Court of Criminal Appeals held:

Several expert witnesses testified appellant knew his conduct was illegal, however, these experts contended that appellant did not know the act was “morally” wrong. In other words, appellant believed that regardless of society’s views about this illegal act and his understanding it was illegal, under his “moral” code it was permissible. This focus upon appellant’s morality is misplaced. The question of insanity should focus on whether a defendant understood the nature and quality of his action and whether it was an act he ought to do. Zimmerman v. State, 85 Tex. Cr. R. 630, 215 S.W. 101, 105 (1919). By accepting and acknowledging his action was “illegal” by societal standards, he understood that others believed his conduct was “wrong.”

For more information, contact the Law Office of Richard Ellison, P.C. for a free initial consultation.