The Defendant’s Mental Health

You’re writing a fabulous story, complete with twists, turns, and at least one murder. Then your murderous bad boy is caught by the law. How will he ever defend himself? Let’s check in with Sean Mactire, via his book Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think and see what he says.

First off, the insanity defense rarely works in real life (more on that in a bit), so don’t try it in your book unless you really know what you’re doing. When presenting the evidence, prosecutors must prove that either the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or that there’s “clear and convincing” evidence that the defendant is insane. The mental health issues brings up other subjects:

1. Is the defendant competent to stand trial?

Mactire gives a quote from the Supreme Court regarding this, and I won’t copy it all for you here. If you need this information for your book, you won’t get enough background from this blog post to pull it off, and it’s rather lengthy, so I’ll skip to this part: “The defendant has to be able to comprehend the trial and the sentence he faces if found guilty and be able to cooperate with his attorney in the preparation of the case.” If he can’t, he’s considered unfit to stand trial. To make it even harder for you as a writer, each state has different standards, so do your homework.

2. Is the defendant responsible for his or her acts?

This is a hot topic for me, as today’s society seems to think that people are clearly NOT responsible for their actions: their momma potty trained them wrong, their daddy beat them and made them into raging lunatics, their doctor gave them the wrong medication, etc. But when it comes down to the law, the standard is “whether the offender displayed criminal intent at the time the crime was committed.” If he was insane at the time he committed the murder, then he cannot be punished in the same way a sane person would be punished.

Mactire says, “the insanity defense is rarely used in criminal cases because it requires that the accused admit to being guilty.” That throws a monkey wrench into the works, because if the defendant is found to NOT be insane, he’s already admitted he did the deed, and off to sentencing he goes. If he’s found to BE insane, he’s off to the mental institution, which could result in a longer “incarceration” than the prison term he’d face. Therefore, defense attorneys (and defendants who know they aren’t legally insane) tend to steer clear of this defense strategy.

There’s a lengthy history of laws and trials pertaining to this topic in the book, but I’m going to skip all that and head right to the bits pertaining to psychopathic disorders and antisocial personality disorders. In these cases, “the insanity defense is not valid.” In all likelihood, if your psychopathic antagonist is caught and there’s enough evidence to bring him to trial, an insanity defense won’t work. And let’s face it, your typical reader wants to see justice prevail, so it’ll be good to watch this bad buy squirm in his chair until the guilty verdict comes down.


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