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Trials using insanity defense may be hardest for jurors

Trials involving a defense of innocent by reason of insanity can also be the most difficult for jurors.

Such claims are often made in the most serious and disturbing cases, Ruth Jones, a professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said Thursday. And they often force “really difficult tensions” on juries.

“We have a need, as a society, to address that harm in some way and protect society from that harm in the future,” she said.



Under California law’s McNaughton rule, proving insanity falls on the defendant’s shoulders after he or she is found guilty in the trial’s first phase, according to Jones.

The second phase involves answering two questions:




— Did the defendant have a mental disease or defect when committing the crime?

— Did the defendant know the difference between right and wrong at that moment?

“Because someone has a mental disease or mental defect,” Jones said, “he cannot make decisions in the same way that the person who doesn’t … therefore he’s not culpable in the same way.”

The testimony of mental health experts helps jurors get at the questions of mental state. On the right-or-wrong question, jurors might consider: Did the defendant try to conceal the crime?

While the law focuses on a defendant’s mind-set at the time of the crime, lawyers often present evidence that illustrates the defendant’s thinking before and after the crime occurred.

– Doug Mattson


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