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Mental Health and Criminal Defense

Mockaitis Law Group LLC Oct. 19, 2023

We’ve probably all heard of TV dramas where a jury returns a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity,” or the defendant enters a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” According to the Bouvier Law Dictionary, entering such a plea is equivalent to “essentially admitting the defendant committed the act of the offense yet denying responsibility because the defendant lacked the capacity to act with criminal intent at the time.” 

In a criminal charge, there are generally two components that need be present, both going by their Latin origins: actus reus and mens rea. Actus reus refers to the actual commission of the act involved in the crime. Mens rea—or guilty mind—means the person had the required mental state to commit the crime. 

When a defendant pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, then the trial will revolve around proving or disproving that that person was indeed incapable of having the mental intent because of a psychological problem. That can be challenging. More common is basing a defense on the concept of diminished capacity due to a mental or psychological condition, or even on provocation. Perhaps the defendant was provoked, which clouded their capacity to know right from wrong. 
Ultimately, if you or someone you love is being charged with a crime anywhere in Chicago’s West Suburbs, including Kendall, Kane, DuPage, Grundy, and DeKalb counties, it’s important to reach out to legal advocacy. 
Contact me right away at Mockaitis Law Group LLC. As a former Assistant State’s Attorney, I have been involved in hundreds of trials and thousands of hearings and understand how the justice system operates on both sides of the aisle. I will meet with you, discuss your situation, and help you find a path forward. In all cases, I will strive vigorously to protect my clients’ rights and fight aggressively for the best outcome possible. 

Mental Disorders as a Defense

The insanity defense, also known as the mental disorder defense, is rarely used. Legal definitions of insanity or mental disorder are varied. They include the M’Naghten Rule in Great Britain in the 1840s, which bases the defense on the defendant’s laboring “under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing….” There is also the ALI rule, the American Legal Institute Model Penal Code rule. 

More common in U.S. courts are defenses based on diminished capacity, or diminished responsibility. This defense acknowledges that the defendant broke the law, but that they should not be fully liable because at the time, their mental functions were impaired, or diminished. While a not guilty by reason of insanity plea may end in an acquittal, a diminished capacity defense will generally only succeed in a charge being lessened or a sentence being reduced. 

Provocation can also be argued. Under this legal principle, the defendant lost self-control due to being provoked. It’s a variation of a “heat of passion.”  Much like diminished capacity, a successful provocation defense can result in a lesser charge or a lighter sentence, not necessarily acquittal. 

Illinois Laws Concerning Mental Disorder and Crime

The Illinois Criminal Code is fairly straightforward on how mental disorders can affect a person’s guilt and offers two somehwat contrasting definitions: 

  • “A person is not criminally responsible for conduct if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or mental defect, he lacks substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.” 

  • “A person who, at the time of the commission of a criminal offense, was not insane but was suffering from a mental illness, is not relieved of criminal responsibility for his conduct and may be found guilty but mentally ill.” 

The law, thus, makes clear that, for a mental disorder to relieve criminal responsibility, it must be shown that the defendant lacked “substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.” 

Proving Mental Health Defense Claims

A defense based on mental health or mental disorder will rely largely on the testimony and evaluation of forensic mental health professionals. These individuals can offer their professional opinion in court on the mental state of the defendant but cannot testify on the crime itself. Illinois follows the Model Penal Code standard, which requires proving that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the offense. 

Mental health issues can also be used as mitigating factors, such as mentioned above, through claims of provocation or diminished capacity. 

It’s vital to contact a skilled criminal defense attorney for help at any stage of the legal process. 

Sentencing and Diversion Programs

In some cases, a person convicted of a crime in Illinois who does suffer from a mental disorder may be offered a diversion program rather than incarceration. These programs offer mental health support and rehabilitative services.  

Don’t Let Your Struggles Stop You. Get Legal Support Today. 

If you are facing a criminal investigation or charge in Chicago’s West Suburbs, and you suffer from a mental condition that may have contributed to your alleged offense, contact me immediately. As an experienced Chicago lawyer, my strategy at Mockaitis Law Group LLC is to work closely with you to hear your side of the story and strive to uphold your rights.