Gray areas of insanity pleas
The Nevada Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision reinstating a “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea demonstrates the complexity of the legal and moral issues involved.
The majority opinion written by Justice Nancy Becker is the correct one, we believe, but there remains plenty of room for argument.
In the case, a Las Vegas man named Frederick Finger murdered his mother by stabbing her in the head. There was evidence of mental problems, both in the Finger’s actions in committing the murder and in his past. But he was not allowed to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, because the Nevada Legislature had removed such a defense from the books in 1995.
The Legislature was attempting, at the time, to cut through the thicket of insanity defenses. It seemed too many non-clinical, non-legal theories were being floated in court by defense attorneys looking for a way to free their clients.
Lawmakers decided to do away with insanity as a defense, and instead make it one of the issues at trial. If prosecutors could prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt, they could prove the defendant had the mental capacity to form that intent.
From a legal standpoint, there is validity in that position. But, as Becker wrote, it goes against judicial history to simply bar an insanity defense. A defendant should be able to argue, from the outset, that he lacks the ability to form the intent to commit a crime. If that’s the case, he cannot be punished.
Still, the practical effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is more important than the legal ramifactions, in our opinion.
Becker noted: “In summary, under the current law, an accused cannot argue that he or she should be acquitted on the
basis of legal insanity. He or she can only argue that the State has not proven intent beyond a reasonable doubt. If a jury does acquit a defendant because they are not convinced that the person had the mental capacity to form the intent to commit the crime, then that person is no longer immediately transferred to a mental health facility. Instead, a person could only be held under provisions of the civil involuntary commitment statutes.”
Society, through the judicial system, necessarily must deal with insane people who commit criminal acts. There are too many gray areas for a black-and-white law.