Competence and The Insanity Defense (Part 2)

by | Nov 3, 2016 | Blog, Criminal Law, Legal Procedures

Criminal LawyerThe insanity defense allows the court to determine whether one with mental illness should be held criminally responsible for his or her conduct under the standard stated in N.J.S.A. 2C:4-1. It is an affirmative defense that defendant must specifically invoke. If the court finds that defendant lacks the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, he or she is thereby excused from criminal culpability. If a defendant is acquitted by reason of insanity, the available options for defendant’s disposition are set forth in N.J.S.A. 2C:4-8(b)(3).

A defendant found competent to stand trial has the right to decline the insanity defense. Prior cases have set forth the procedure that a trial court should follow in that event. In State v. Handy, 215 N.J. 334 (2013), we rejected the bifurcated proceeding that the court prescribed in State v. Khan, 175 N.J. Super. 72, 81-82 (App. Div. 1980), when a defendant seeks to assert both a substantive defense and the insanity defense, and held that a unitary hearing should occur on all defenses. Accordingly, where the court is advised that the defendant does not plan to assert the insanity defense notwithstanding evidence that could support the defense, the court should undertake a detailed colloquy at the conclusion of the State’s case to ensure that defendant understands the ramifications of his or her decision. The court should: explain the nature and purpose of the defense; describe generally the evidence relevant to that defense, including expert opinion that could be used to support or counter the defense; inform the defendant of his or her sentencing exposure in the event of a conviction; describe civil commitment and the other potential dispositions prescribed by N.J.S.A. 2C:4-8(b); and confirm the defendant’s understanding of these matters.

In this case, after finding defendant competent to stand trial and based on the defense psychiatrist’s report, the trial court properly conducted a colloquy with defendant regarding her refusal to assert the insanity defense. The court thereby ensured that defendant had the information that she needed to make an informed decision. The trial court erred when it declined to respect defendant’s autonomous decision not to assert the insanity defense, and interposed its own judgment to invoke the defense. To the extent that prior case law suggests otherwise, the Court declines to follow it. This error warrants a new trial on the stalking charge. The Court rejects defendant’s other claims of trial error, and affirms the judgment of the Appellate Division upholding the weapons possession convictions.

On remand, the trial court should assess defendant’s competency to stand trial under N.J.S.A. 2C:4-4, based on current information and mental health evaluations. The court should consider, among other issues, whether defendant’s delusionary condition, if it persists, renders her unable to participate in an adequate presentation of her defense. If defendant is found competent to stand trial, and declines to invoke the insanity defense, the court should advise her, at the close of the State’s case, of the defense and the consequences of her choice, and then respect the decision that defendant makes.”