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The challenges associated with an insanity defense


New Jersey residents following the trial of the man accused of shooting 12 people dead in a Colorado movie theater will likely know that his lawyers are pursuing a defense strategy based on insanity. This kind of plea is only used about 1 percent of the time in county court cases according to figures from the National Institute of Mental Health, but it is often a strategy of last resort in high-profile death penalty cases. The defense was used successfully by counsel representing the man accused of shooting Ronald Reagan in 1981, but the jury rejected an insanity plea in the trial of Eddie Routh.

When a jury accepts a criminal defense of not guilty by reason of insanity, the defendant will be remanded to a psychiatric facility with no guarantee of ever being released. This prospect of lifetime confinement is a major reason why attorneys rarely recommend an insanity plea. The strategy is often reserved for cases where the evidence against the defendant is overwhelming and the death penalty is being sought by prosecutors.

However, attorneys face an uphill battle in these situations because juries only accept an insanity defense about a quarter of the time. An insanity plea also involves admitting guilt, and taking this path makes it difficult for attorneys to change strategy later on. Juries may also by unsympathetic to defendants who have admitted to committing violent crimes.

Cases featuring an insanity plea often receive a great deal of media attention, and the prosecutors involved may be under a great deal of pressure. Trials always involve a certain degree of risk, and even prosecutors with compelling evidence may sometimes be willing to consider a plea agreement. Criminal defense attorneys are most likely aware of the challenges associated with mounting an insanity defense, and they may feel that negotiating with prosecutors or challenging the validity of physical evidence would better serve their clients.

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