Oklahoma Insanity Defense Law

“Not guilty by reason of mental illness.” You’ve probably heard of this kind of jury verdict before, more commonly known as the “insanity defense,” perhaps in connection with the September release of John Hinckley, Jr.—the man who in 1981 attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to gain the attention of actress Jodie Foster, whom he was stalking at the time.

Oklahoma has allowed the insanity defense for many years, but last month, Governor Fallin signed into law a bill that adds a new twist: now, depending on the circumstances surrounding the underlying conviction, a criminal case defendant might be found either not guilty by reason of mental illness or “guilty with mental defect.”

Not Guilty Because of Insanity and Guilty With Mental Defect: What’s the Difference?

The basis of the insanity defense is that at the time of the commission of the alleged crime, the defendant was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong. Those who are found not guilty by reason of mental illness are not sent to prison, but to a mental treatment facility where they remain until they can be determined as no longer posing a dangerous threat to society. Some have claimed that allowing what amounts to be mentally unhinged “thrill killers” or other unrepentant criminals to use this defense amounts to a miscarriage of justice if they serve no prison time; the new law takes aim squarely at these types of individuals.

It all comes down to the difference between a mental illness and a mental defect, which in turn depends on whether the accused has an “anti-social personality disorder.”

What Is an Anti-Social Personality Disorder?

The new guilty with mental defect verdict option does not replace the not guilty by reason of mental illness verdict, but presents an alternative to it. Anyone who is found to have an anti-social personality disorder cannot be found “not guilty” even if he or she was unable to tell right from wrong or otherwise understand the nature or consequences of what he or she did.

Anti-social personality disorder behaviors can include the following:

• Habitually violating the rights of others with no sense of remorse, guilt, shame or regret
• Habitual criminal activity
• Engaging in behaviors that, while technically legal, still manipulate or harm others in unethical, immoral, irresponsible ways
• Psychopathic or sociopathic behaviors

Some more specific examples of this type of disorder are lying, deception, manipulating others simply for amusement, impulsive acts that harm others, and physically assaulting others from a sense of irritability or aggression.

What Are the Consequences of Being Found Guilty With Mental Defect?

The main effects of being found guilty with mental defect are what it precludes: you can’t use the alternative not guilty by reason of mental illness defense, and you can’t avoid serving time in jail or prison once you are released from a mental health institution. The bottom line thinking behind the law is that if a crime has an anti-social personality disorder mental defect as its root, then treatment is impractical as a long-term solution and punishment is warranted, with the sentence being the same as for someone who committed the same crime without a basis of mental illness or defect.

How the new law will work in actual practice will depend in part on how both prosecution and defense attorneys are able—with help from expert witness testimony—to navigate the psychological aspects of whether an “insanity defense” is warranted, and if so, what the nature of the claimed mental illness or defect is. Whichever side is more persuasive to the jury can have a significant impact on whether the defendant is found guilty, or guilty with mental defect, or not guilty by reason of mental illness.