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Understanding an insanity defense

It is safe to say that television viewers and movie buffs in New Jersey and throughout the country have seen a dramatization of a court case in which the defendant is found not guilty due to insanity. Many times, those dramatizations shape people’s real-life opinions as well. Like the outraged actors in these programs, others may perceive a defendant has received a “free pass” after committing a crime and receiving a not-guilty judgment. This feeling may also be shared by victims and their families, as well as others involved in the legal community.

A New Jersey radio station reported in 2017 on a woman from Burlington County who threw a 5-year-old onto the tracks of an approaching train. The child was rescued and suffered only minor physical injuries. The woman was judged not guilty of attempted murder charges by reason of insanity. She was then consigned to a psychiatric facility.

The state allows those with this finding to be evaluated by a psychiatrist and released—on his or her recommendation—with or without supervision. Whether they are dangerous to themselves or others is part of the evaluation as well. Judges can commit such a person to long-term psychiatric care for the term or longer than what would be his or her prison sentence if found guilty.

FindLaw explains that New Jersey follows the M’Naghten Rule, as many other states do. This rule is a type of test that determines a defendant’s legal sanity. Also known as the “right-wrong” test, the rule concentrates on whether the defendant understood the nature of the crime or knew right from wrong at the time of the act. To be judged not guilty, the accused must meet one of these two criteria of understanding.

Despite its Hollywood treatment, the rule was established long before the rise of the silver screen and its influence on popular culture. It was first recognized in the mid-19 Century by the English House of Lords who stated that the defendant’s case must be “clearly proved” to be a “defect of reason” or “disease of mind” that led to the act.

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