The Insanity Defense in Arizona (Part 2 of 3)

Introduction to the insanity defense in Arizona

Continuing with an examination of how mental illnesses and conditions can impact a person’s criminal charges, our attention turns next to a defense based on mental disorder. In times past, this defense was known as the “insanity defense.” The insanity defense in Arizona absolves the individual of criminal responsibility for his or her acts but also generally resulted in the involuntary confinement of the person in a state mental institution for his or her own safety and the safety of the community. While a few states do not allow for a defense based on insanity, most states and the federal courts do allow a defendant to assert an insanity defense.

What Does it Mean to Be Insane?

the insanity defense in ArizonaThe legal definition of insanity has changed over the years as lawmakers worked first to make the defense more accessible and then restricted it following the failed assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan. In its current incarnation, most statements of the insanity defense hold that a person who is not able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or did not understand the nature of his or her conduct at all. The person must be found to have been suffering form a mental disorder or condition at the time of the alleged criminal acts in order to successfully employ the insanity defense.

The person’s mental disorder must make it such that he or she does not comprehend the nature of the acts – the person’s inability to control his or her actions because of his or her condition is usually not a relevant inquiry. Take two situations as examples:

  • Defendant A believes that he is God’s messenger of death. God has commissioned him to rid the world of demons by killing them. In so doing, Defendant A believes he will be blessed by God and hailed as a hero by humanity. Defendant A proceeds on a mass killing spree, killing those individuals he believes are demons. Because Defendant A does not believe he actually killed people and believed his actions should be praised, not condemned, Defendant A may be able to successfully assert the insanity defense.

  • Defendant B hears voices, with one of the voices being that of “The Devil.” Defendant B knows that The Devil is evil and only has bad things in mind. Try as he might, however, Defendant B cannot block The Devil’s voice. One day, at the command of The Devil, Defendant B begins shooting individuals believing that this will make The Devil go away. Defendant B may try to plead insanity and claim “The Devil made me do it!” at trial, but the insanity defense is not likely to be successful for Defendant B because he still appears to understand that killing individuals was wrong (because The Devil is the one who told him to do it and he knows The Devil to be evil).

Who Must Prove Insanity?

In most jurisdictions the defendant has the burden of presenting enough evidence to suggest that it is more likely than not true that he or she was insane at the time of the alleged criminal act. Once the defendant is successful in presenting such evidence, then the prosecution may rebut this showing with evidence of its own. The question of whether a person was insane at the time of the criminal act is one for the fact-finder (the judge or the jury in any particular case). As noted above, the insanity defense in Arizona may result in the involuntary commitment of the defendant to a state hospital if it is believed that the defendant still suffers from the mental disorder and continues to be insane.