Insanity and Incompetence

By Casey Arbenz, October 2016

By Casey Arbenz

               Since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, it seems not a week goes by anymore without news reports of a violent incident where a “deranged” member of society carries out a senseless attack on innocent civilians who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  The most tragic of these attacks was surely last December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 year-old assailant Adam Lanza gunned down twenty children and six teachers before turning the gun on himself.  This attack, like the many before it, ignited the public debate about gun control and media violence once again, but it also raised another important issue – the mental health of the shooter and the prevalence of violent outbursts and attacks by young people (usually men) in their early twenties.

                We at the Hester Law Group are not unfamiliar with  this phenomenon – in fact, in 2013 we represented several such individuals, each of whom had no prior criminal history and had not previously been involved in violent behavior before unleashing aggressively without provocation.  In several of our cases, the violence was aimed at family members.  These cases consistently proved to be some of the most challenging, not only from a legal perspective, but also because of the stakes involved, the fear and concern of the family members and the rigidity of prosecutors and judges – some of whom freely acknowledge the need to “cover their ass” in these cases, should the defendant commit a future violent crime. 

                A practitioner signing on to defend a case with a mental health defense will need to familiarize him or herself with RCW 10.77, which sets forth many of the relevant statutes governing these types of cases.  A threshold question will be whether the defendant has the mental capacity to stand trial.  In other words, does the defendant “lack the capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings against him or her or to assist in his or her own defense as a result of mental disease or defect?”  If, after an evaluation, the defendant is found incompetent, he or she will be sent to a state hospital for treatment in hopes of restoring competency and the pending case will be stayed.  Once found competent the proceedings will be reinitiated.  If competency is not restored, eventually the charges may be dismissed. 

If competency is restored, the defendant may still assert that he or she was insane at the time the crime occurred, but must assert such a defense by written notice within 10 days of arraignment or at a later date “for good cause.”   Insanity is typically established by first having the defendant evaluated by a defense psychiatrist who will opine whether, as a result of mental disease or defect, the defendant was (1) able to perceive the nature and quality of the act with which he or she is charged or (2) tell right from wrong with reference to the particular act charged.  If insanity is established by the defense expert, the state will then have the defendant evaluated by one of its doctors.  If both doctors agree, the state may be willing to stipulate to a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI).  If the doctors don’t agree, the issue of sanity will have to be litigated.  If the defendant is indeed NGRI, following the acquittal, he or she will need to be evaluated for future dangerousness to the community and, if found to pose a future danger, will be sent to the state hospital for treatment until he or she no longer poses a threat.  The length of the stay is indefinite but cannot exceed the statutory maximum sentence of the crime he or she was acquitted of. 

Mental health cases present some of the most difficult issues a defense lawyer will ever face.  As they say, however, knowledge is power.  A solid understanding of RCW 10.77 will give any practitioner a healthy head-start in providing clients and their families the guidance they will require to navigate such complicated and stressful circumstances.