Each year, thousands of mentally ill people are arrested in Texas. A small number of them will plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
But what does that mean? And what happens to them if they are found not guilty by reason of insanity?
Not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) is a seldom-used defense that is raised for defendants who did not know their conduct was wrong due to a severe mental illness or defect. For example, insane defendants might hear voices that instruct them to commit a murder or carry out a violent act or experience delusions that make them believe they are being followed, poisoned or persecuted.
In this article, we are going to discuss Texas’ insanity defense, explain what happens when someone is found NGRI, and offer real examples of when this defense worked – and when it did not.
What is Texas’ insanity defense?
In Texas, the “insanity defense” is codified in Section 8.01 of the Penal Code. It is an affirmative defense that excuses or justifies a person’s actions on the ground that he or she was suffering from a severe mental illness at the time of the offense and, as a result, did not know that their criminal conduct was wrong.
To be successful, the defendant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, two things:
- They were suffering from a severe mental disease or defect and;
- as a result of that mental illness, they did not know that their conduct at the time of the crime was wrong.
What happens when someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity in Texas?
When a defendant is found NGRI in Texas, they are technically acquitted of all charges, but they will not be released to the streets. What happens next depends on whether the defendant is deemed dangerous or not.
After receiving a NGRI verdict, a judge will hold a hearing within 30 days to determine if the defendant is mentally ill and whether he or she committed a violent offense.
If the court finds the defendant did not commit a violent offense or is no longer mentally ill, he or she can be discharged, placed with a responsible person or transferred to probate court. There, civil commitment proceedings determine whether the defendant should be committed to a Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation facility.
If the crime was violent, the court has two options: transfer the defendant to probate court or retain jurisdiction. If the court chooses to retain jurisdiction, which is common, it can order the defendant to be committed for up to 90 days to a maximum-security state hospital.
If a board decides that the patient is not “manifestly dangerous,” he or she must be transferred to a less-restrictive state hospital within 60 days.
After 90 days, the judge must decide whether to recommit the defendant for up to a year. At the expiration of each commitment, the judge can recommit the defendant for up to a year.
How long can a NGRI defendant be committed to a state hospital?
A defendant who is found not guilty by reason of insanity in Texas cannot be committed to a mental hospital for longer than the maximum sentence of the crime. For example, if the maximum sentence for the crime was 10 years, that is the maximum amount of time they could be committed. After that, the court loses jurisdiction and the defendant can only be civilly committed.
How common is the insanity defense in Texas?
The insanity defense is rare in Texas. In fact, it is only raised in about one percent of all criminal cases. Of the cases where the defense is raised, even fewer are successful, especially in jury trials.
Why is the insanity defense rarely successful?
Jurors have a hard time finding someone “not guilty” when they know that the defendant committed a crime. They also often wrongly believe that, if they acquit an insane defendant or find them “not guilty,” they are released to the streets – even though they are mentally ill and potentially dangerous.
Juries are not allowed to be told that defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity typically go to a state mental hospital until a treatment team finds they are stable enough to be released and that a judge must approve their release.
Most defendants are not found NGRI by a jury. But rather, a judge will render the verdict after both sides enter into a plea agreement. These agreements are usually only reached after mental health experts agree that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the offense.
What are some examples of when an insanity defense was raised in Texas?
The insanity defense has been raised in a number of high-profile cases over the decades in Texas. Below are examples and the outcome of the case:
- In 2020, Krystle Concepcion Villanueva was sentenced to life in prison without parole for stabbing and beheading her 5-year-old daughter. She claimed that her daughter and father-in-law had “been replaced by clones and had to be killed to bring back her real family.” Jurors rejected her insanity defense and found her guilty of capital murder.
- Eddie Ray Routh was sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for gunning down American Sniper author Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a sport shooting range southwest of Glen Rose. Routh’s defense team contended that he was schizophrenic and that Kyle and Littlefield were pig hybrids and that he had to kill them before they killed him. Jurors rejected that argument after 2 1/2 hours of deliberation and found him guilty of capital murder.
- In 2004, Dena Schlosser amputated both arms of her 10-month-old daughter with a butcher knife because she believed God commanded her to do so. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a state mental hospital. She has since been released.
- Deanna Laney was found not guilty by reason of insanity for bludgeoning two of her sons to death with rocks and severely injuring the third on Mother’s Day in 2003. Laney said she was following God’s orders. She was released from a mental hospital in 2012.
- In 2001, Andrea Yates, a Houston mother suffering from postpartum psychosis, drowned all five of her children in her bathtub. Jurors rejected her insanity defense and sentenced her to life in prison. That verdict was later overturned due to the erroneous testimony of a prosecution medical expert and Yates was granted a new trial. During her second trial, jurors found her not guilty by reason of insanity and she was committed to a state mental hospital.
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